I’ll admit it: concentration has never been one of my strengths. Even as I’m listening to you my scatter-brained “monkey mind” will skip from topic to topic like a flat rock over water. I’ve grown adept, over the years, at appearing to listen, to be interested and focused, nodding at all the right moments, occasionally mumbling something vaguely responsive. It’s a poor approach to interpersonal communication. I admire the great listeners, people who appear “all in” conversationally.
How can I be more like them? How can I do better? How can I achieve “high focus”?
In a March 2019 piece in the New York Times Adam Bryant wrote about “distracted listening.” Bryant, a Times’ columnist and later a C-suite consultant who has conducted more than 500 interviews over 30-plus years, advises people to “think of listening as a form of meditation. You have to clear your mind of everything else, so you can focus entirely on what the other person is saying.”
Easier said than done.
I sometimes try an experiment in concentration, on staying in the present. I challenge myself, when riding my bike or walking in the neighborhood, to focus exclusively on the here and now and let go of thoughts of the past or future – both so frequently unproductive.
Especially when cycling, such high focus can be lifesaving, enabling a rider to spot and avoid potholes, car doors, cross traffic and the myriad other potential hazards that can send a cyclist flying straight into the emergency room. Sadly, I’m not very good at it. The image of “car ahead” quickly segues into buy bread, the week ahead, and from there to shopping, vacations, work, kids, and so on. Same in the car, especially on a route I’ve driven many times before, when the car seems to take over as if on auto pilot.
It’s one reason I like to write. As the novelist Russell Banks said at a writing workshop I attended many years ago, you are never better as a person than when you’re writing. Why? Because the art of writing requires every bit of creativity, discipline and focus one can muster. You might be able to bike or drive or do a lot of other things on auto pilot – but you cannot write that way.
In the course of my journalism career I too have conducted many interviews. My desire to get to the bottom of someone’s story helps keep me focused. And taking notes, a form of writing, also helps. But most conversations are note-free, so I have to rely on my own powers, such as they are, of concentration.
As often happens, my wife comes to the rescue. Riding our bikes together the other morning, we stopped at a bench on the lakefront bike trail at Northwestern, and she led me through a guided meditation, instructing me how to sit and breathe properly and, when my mind wandered, return to meditation without judgment.
That last is important. Failure is part of the human condition. To forgive oneself for failing is the first step toward succeeding. The important thing is to guide the distracted mind back to the subject at hand. That would be a good start on my never-ending goal to achieve higher focus in all my activities.