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As leaders, we have a lot on our minds all the time. We have a lot to do, and often the thing we are most concerned about isn't the thing we are doing now. I mean, who hasn't had meetings back-to-back where our focus ends up being on the second (or third) meeting rather than on the one we're in?
The problem is that when we are focused on the next thing, we're not really present to those who are with us right then. There are, of course, many ways to be absent, or semi-absent, from those we are physically proximate to - like checking our smartphone, our watch (or even smart watch), staring out the window, watching a television, and so on. At least for me, though, all of that pales in comparison to what's going on in my own head. I can think about three things at once between someone's sentences.
Most of us want to be more present to those we lead, and more present to those we care about. The trick is, once we notice we are being absent or semi-absent, we often start thinking about how we're absent, rather than jumping back to presence. It's kind of like the "don't think about a big, juicy hamburger" experiment. Who among us didn't just think of a big, juicy hamburger when we read that?
So what to do?
At the suggestion of my colleague and Executive Coach Phil Bergey, I have begun practicing curiosity on purpose. And I've found that it really helps as a self-check for how present I am to those I am conversing with. Here's the idea: if I'm so absorbed in what's running through my own head that I can't find anything about the person in front of me that makes me curious, then I'm not really present, or not really listening, or really just don't care.
Some of this could be because I'm too busy talking to hear what the other person is saying - or so ready with my next line that I can't hear theirs. Some of this comes down to the natural insecurity of all conversations - will we be understood? What will their response be? Can I accomplish what I came here for? This is all especially true when there is a power imbalance: a leader, a subordinate, a sales/customer conversation, and so on. For me to be really present, the natural insecurity must give way to the confidence that comes from being able to ask something new.
(Related: The story we tell with cost and value.)
When my curiosity is really running, I'm listening for what the other person is saying, and seeing what genuinely sparks - not just what's on a script. It's led to some really interesting and fruitful conversations. I'm a naturally curious person: I like learning. Curiosity helps me learn who people are, what they need, and how they might need it delivered. This helps me for client-orientation in business, and helps as I build friendships and strengthen family ties.
What about you?
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