Some time ago, I met with each of the folks on a new team to get to know them, and I found myself in a dangerous trap. Going in, I want very badly to make a good impression. I prepared for these meetings by trying to focus on my goal in having the meeting in the first place, trying to put to use some of the positioning and permissioning ideas I learned from a Esther Derby Q&A (thanks, Esther!) I would try to remember that it is about the person I was meeting with, not me. But still a little voice would creep in: “Psst! How is the coaching going?” The next thing I know I’m engaged in full-blown internal dialogue:
Me: I think I’m doing okay…she really seems to be opening up.
Also Me: I don’t know. I think I might be leading her a bit with my questions.
Me: True, but she really seemed to stall there. You had to help her get back into the flow.
Also Me: I guess, but why didn’t you even try to just sit silently? Mightn’t she have gotten there on her own?
Me: Whoops! I don’t remember anything she said for the last 27 seconds.
Unfortunately, truly focusing your attention on a point outside of yourself for sustained period of time is extremely difficult. As soon as you define what you don’t want to think about, you are thinking about it. Here, the thing you are trying not to think about is yourself, or seemingly relevant things like, “am I doing a good job listening?” The latter is an especially insidious trap if you make regular practice of the normally useful habit of self-reflection.
I’ve seen parallels to this in other areas. One is meditation. I know virtually nothing about meditation, but the very little I have done has shown me what a beast of a struggle it is to keep your focus on something as simple as counting your own breaths for even a few seconds. More importantly, I have found that even minor successes only show me how much fuller my attention could be, how distracted I still am.
The other comes from acting. I trained in a Meisner-based program, where you spend lots of time on exercises aimed at keeping your attention on your acting partner. It’s excruciatingly hard. The second you achieve something close to true attention trained on the other person, pride rushes in to pat you on the back and your focus crumbles away.
While listening is an especially important challenge for coaches to meet, everyone can benefit from improving here. If I have any conclusions, I suppose they are these. First, if you are worried about how your coaching/managing/etc. is going while you are meeting with someone, you are almost certainly going to do a poor job. Second, if you think you are regularly achieving pure focus in your discussions, try meditating (or even just sitting quietly for 15 minutes looking out a window with no agenda) before your next 1:1. If you find that you brought your focus deeper, it might mean that your original focus wasn’t as deep as you thought. Third, it might be useful to adopt a phrase you use to remind yourself of this at the top of 1:1 meetings, for example, “it’s all about the other person” or the like.