On The Job...

Think Multi-tasking Muddles Your Brain? 

…Wait ’til You See What It Does to Your Relationships

Digital distractions don’t just make it hard to focus on work; they make it hard to focus on people, too. Communication expert Geoffrey Tumlin shares six ways to ensure that the most important people in your life are getting enough of your undivided attention.

New York, NY (July 2014)—Do any of these sound familiar: While talking with a coworker, you hear a message chime in and find it next to impossible not to look at it. Or, during a meeting you glance around and see that almost everyone is looking at a screen instead of paying attention to what’s being discussed. Or, perhaps you find yourself spending an embarrassing amount of time checking the price of stocks you don’t own, looking at vacation pictures of “friends” you barely know, and bombarding yourself with blogs, articles, and tweets about topics you don’t really care about.

Of course these events sound familiar: In the digital age, we’re all shameless multitaskers constantly on the lookout for our next dopamine burst of novelty.

Unfortunately, multitasking and our ceaseless pursuit of the next clickable thing aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Research consistently documents the harsh reality that multitasking degrades our cognitive performance. Even worse, according to recent studies, we are rewiring our brains to seek constant stimulation even when we’re offline. This means that it’s not just our work performance that suffers; our most important relationships also feel the strain from our distracted, stimulation-seeking habits. Instead of fulfilling its promise of helping us do more with less, notes Geoffrey Tumlin, multitasking ends up “helping” us do less with more.

“Multitasking and excessive screen time rob our most important work and home relationships of what they need the most: our time and our attention,” says Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. “Constantly scanning for our next burst of excitement from the virtual world frequently causes us to lose sight of the people around us. As our online tendencies bleed into our offline lives—we’re easily distracted, easily bored, and constantly on the lookout for the next ‘new’ thing—it’s increasingly difficult for us to remain in the moment. As a result, our conversations falter and our relationships come under strain.”

Multitasking and constant clicking don’t just rewire our brains; they also rewire our relationships. Distracted communication creates distance between people and leads to interactions that are unconstructive and unsatisfying. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

“To foster productive and meaningful relationships in an environment where digital distractions aren’t going away, it’s essential to make our interactions count,” recommends Tumlin. “It doesn’t require a lot of undivided attention to build and maintain strong relationships, but it does require some undivided attention. Good communication = good relationships = good life. And that’s why being fully present in our conversations matters so much.”

Here, Tumlin shares six ways to fight back against distracted and unproductive communication and strengthen our relationships:

  • Rewire your brain for focused conversations
    There’s no reason why today’s short attention spans should be the last word on our brain wiring; we can lay down tracks of focus and concentration with our very next conversation. “A daily commitment to minimize digital distractions or unplug for a period of time can rewire our brains to encourage more of the sustained attention that good conversations require,” says Tumlin.

    And a commitment to reducing distractions and increasing our conversational focus doesn’t mean we have to give up our digital devices. (It’s not like we would do that anyway!) When we are willing to step away from our screens temporarily, pay attention to the person in front of us, and engage in real-time conversations, we are often rewarded with productive and meaningful interpersonal exchanges.

    “We don’t have to throw out our devices to improve our conversational focus,” says Tumlin. “Good conversations, online and offline, are well within our grasp when we harness our attention and focus on the conversation at hand.”

  • Commit to listen
    In an age when self-expression and instant communication are the norms, listening skills don’t get much attention. But that’s a shame because listening is foundational to effective communication and healthy relationships.

    “Listening is how we demonstrate that the conversation—and the other person—matters,” points out Tumlin. “Listening harnesses our attention and sends the message that this person and this interaction count.

    “Additionally, something remarkable frequently happens when we stop talking and listen: We learn amazing things about the people we work with and the people we love,” says Tumlin. “But for a meaningful exchange to take place, actual listening, not just partial listening, is required. We have to let people talk, without interruption, and give them our precious attention. It’s a paradox of the digital age that we are all so busy sending messages that we feel like there’s no need to listen. For better conversations, remember to make listening a priority.”

  • Consider the other person’s point of view
    When we’re distracted, it’s hard to listen, let alone to seriously consider the other person’s perspective. But that failure is a major opportunity lost, because perspective-taking provides a host of important conversational benefits: It increases the odds of understanding, it communicates to our conversational partners that we are taking their observations seriously, it keeps our minds open, and it boosts the chances that we will find areas of agreement and overlapping interests.

    Of course these events sound familiar: In the digital age, we’re all shameless multitaskers constantly on the lookout for our next dopamine burst of novelty

    “Mutual interests often never get identified, and shared understanding frequently doesn’t materialize because we don’t stop to consider the other person’s perspective,” says Tumlin. “Many conversations stall irreparably because it’s easier for me to tell you what I believe than to consider what you are saying. When we make it a habit to consider the other person’s perspective, it opens up a window where common goals and shared understanding often emerge. And even when they don’t, people know when you are seriously considering their perspective and it encourages the building of a cornerstone of strong relationships: trust.”

  • Be persuaded
    Listening and considering the other person’s perspective will work wonders to improve your conversations and strengthen your relationships. But something quite beneficial often happens when these two communication behaviors become habits: Good ideas start bubbling up all around us.

    “We’re often so busy pushing out messages that we completely miss good ideas that waltz right up to us,” says Tumlin. “It’s true that not all ideas are good ideas, but intentional listening and perspective-taking sort out most of the shaky ideas from the valuable ones. When we give people our undivided attention and make a serious attempt to understand their point of view, we are often rewarded with the answer to a longstanding problem, with a key piece of information we need to resolve a simmering issue, or with a better way of doing things that we hadn’t considered.

    “Furthermore, highly regarded research suggests that allowing someone to influence us is the hallmark of a strong relationship,” points out Tumlin. “Allowing yourself to be persuaded doesn’t mean that you’re a sucker. It means that you’re ready and willing to act—and even to reverse course when necessary—when a good idea comes along.”

  • Don’t say something
    Nothing seems more antithetical to our hypercommunicating tendencies than sitting on our words, but not communicating in many situations is a vital digital age skill. “The clearest signal you shouldn’t say something is usually an overwhelming feeling that you should,” says Tumlin. “The ability to choke back impulsive and harmful words is what separates the most effective communicators from everybody else

    “Some of our greatest communication ‘victories’ actually happen when we don’t say a thing,” he adds. “The comeback that we choke back, the insult on the tip of our tongue that stays there, the criticism we let die on the vine, and the smart question we don’t ask are all unsung communication heroes, silently protecting our most important relationships. Some of the best evidence that our relationships are getting stronger will come from all the things—the fights, the drama, and the turmoil—that never happen.”

  • Stick with an awkward conversation
    Our craving for our next fix of virtual excitement causes us to bail out on awkward conversations far too early and far too often. This is a problem because conversations are often awkward and challenging as we progress from the point of no understanding to the point of understanding. Abandoning a difficult conversation for the lure of a simpler one cements a failed interaction.

    “It’s natural to want to eject from an awkward conversation,” points out Tumlin. “But abandoning an interaction at the first sign of struggle prevents us from working through the difficulty and emerging on the other side with some type of shared understanding and, possibly, agreement. We strengthen our conversational skills and our relationships simultaneously when we work through difficulties and differences together. Few things bond people together as strongly as the shared confidence that they can reliably move from misunderstanding to understanding and from problem to solution. Sticking with awkward conversations until understanding emerges is a valuable relational investment.”

    “We pay people a great compliment when we’re fully present during our conversations,” says Tumlin. “The kind of relationships—and the kind of life—we want require focus and attention to achieve, and the people we care for the most deserve our very best communication. Two people talking, without distractions coming in between, is one of the simplest and most powerful of human pleasures.”






About the Author:
Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, an organizational development company; the founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations; and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013). As a frequent media guest, Geoffrey’s writing and ideas on communication and leadership have appeared in Fast Company, Inc.com, Fortune.com, CNNMoney, Investor’s Business Daily, Fox Business, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Yahoo! Small Business Advisor, Monster.com, HR.com, SiriusXM radio, and hundreds of other media outlets. His scholarly writing on communication and leadership has appeared in journals, newspapers, and textbooks, including Discourse Studies, the International Leadership Journal, the Encyclopedia of Leadership, Employment Relations Today, and five editions of Professional Communication Skills.