The best times I have in any given week are the times that are 100% electronics free. Unfortunately, those times are few and far between.
When I am in my office, I am distracted by the mere presence of a computer, cell phone, desktop phone, and iPad. Even when I work into the wee hours of the morning, I feel somehow compelled to occasionally glance at e-mail. No one ever sends e-mails of any worth after 10:00 p.m. pacific time… But I can’t seem to help myself. I look at least once an hour, no matter what time of day or night it is. I have no idea why I do that.
For me, the easiest way to meaningful connections is to leave my office. I have to disconnect from all the gadgets so I can establish a quality connection with a person. When I am genuinely distraction-free, it is liberating and exhilarating. Lunch with a friend, being in a small group study, hanging out with former co-workers on a Friday night, training a group in person, even driving my son to one of his many after-school activities – these are the times when I feel wholly restored by people connections.
Of course, there are times when I need to connect even though I am in the office and hearing the siren song of electronics. When I am working remotely with a coaching client, for example, it is imperative that I give my undivided attention and focus to my client. Doing coaching work by phone means that I could “multi-task” and check e-mails during the conversation. But I know that will lead me mentally astray. So I just don’t do it. Ever.
In fact, I am such a purist about this that I don’t even record my notes by typing except in the most formulaic and brief interviews. If I plan to ask follow up questions and have a 2-way conversation, I go old school and take notes by writing longhand. That means I often have to re-write them if I intend to file them electronically. The distractions for me include making corrections to typos, resizing or bolding or underlining text as I take notes, and (I have to admit it) straying to look at the e-mail notifications that pop up while I’m talking and typing.
There’s an added benefit to writing longhand. I learn and retain the information that I write down. It simply doesn’t stick as long if I type it. Knowing this helps me to justify to myself why I am choosing the slower process.
When I am surrounded by technology temptations, I remind myself that the person I am currently working with is the most important thing in the world at that moment. When I do this, I can tell the difference in the quality of our conversation and connection. I suspect the person on the other end of the phone can, too. When I succumb to distractions, I feel a vague sense of guilt. I also feel disappointed in the lack of a connection, the missed opportunity to have a more meaningful and impactful dialogue. That, too, is a great incentive to focus. The more I do this, the more I see the value in it. And the easier it has become over the years of practice.
Getting to this point required acknowledging that it is okay not to be available to everyone 24/7. I have a 24-hour rule for myself – I respond to every e-mail and voice mail within 24 hours. If I don’t have the answer, I will least respond with an “I’m working on it” message. This keeps me accountable and connected. More importantly, it enables me to focus time and energy on the deeper level connections that require me to disconnect first.
Early in my sales career, I worked in an outbound telemarketing job. My boss, Candy, advised me to keep a smile on my face and picture the person I was calling. I took it a step further, cutting out head shots of people from the newspaper’s Business section. The photos didn’t match the people I called except for gender. It was just a mental trick I played on myself to focus my attention and make the conversation more “real” than a generic phone call might otherwise be. For me, as hokey as it seemed, it really worked to help me feel more connected. My feeling of connection was undoubtedly conveyed in my tone, warmth, and personalization to the person I called. These days, I don’t keep a folder of head shots on my desk… Instead, I look at the photos of the actual people I am calling. I find them on Linked In or elsewhere online.
When I shadow sales reps and conduct field coaching and research, I am often taken aback by how little they invest themselves into phone calls. In one organization, it was not uncommon for telemarketers to play online games while they were making their canned pitch to clients. The reps missed buying signals, had awkward pauses, and even sounded irritated at times when the people they called asked questions. It was appalling to me, especially when a manager blessed the practice by saying “It’s this younger generation. They can multi-task. We can’t come down too hard on that because we need to be flexible in order to retain sales talent.”
A Cornell Professor described research related to this multi-tasking misperception in a seminar I attended. He said “people who think they are effective at multi-tasking while communicating miss just as much as someone who blows a .08 blood alcohol content.” That factoid has stuck with me. I’m all for efficiency and getting as much done as I can as quickly as possible. But I’m more in favor of effectiveness when it comes to any kind of communication and connection.
What I said to that sales manager was that I didn’t think true sales talent would ever treat customers and prospects and selling in such a nonchalant way. If that makes me inflexible, out of touch with the way things are now, or a bad multi-tasker, then so be it. It may be an antiquated notion, but for me it’s all about making a genuine connection.
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