Too much of a good thing can lead to distractions. That’s especially true at work where too much open space (think cubicles) creates additional noise and interruptions. Too much technology leads to hundreds of messages, emails and notifications a day. Too much communication results in a never-ending cycle of meetings.

You already know those kinds of distractions reduce productivity and increase stress, but have you considered how your conversation style adds to the chaos?

It’s easy to blame distracted colleagues, especially when they check their phone during conversations or skip to the end of emails without actually reading them. You know they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying. It’s frustrating, rude and a waste of time.

Here’s the thing: They probably can’t help it because their attention spans are shot — but you can. Changing the way you present information can deliver better results in a conversation and help improve the attention spans of your colleagues, for at least as long as you need it. Try these three steps.

Pick one topic and stick with it. Multitasking at work contributes to your colleagues’ wandering minds. Multitasking in a conversation does the same thing. Dropping by a co-worker’s desk and asking if he’s booked the conference room for next month’s training, followed up with the sales team he met with last week, and then mentioning that he needs to put together the agenda for the staff meeting tomorrow is a multitasked conversation. It might seem more productive to hit everything on your to-do list in one conversation, but it probably made his head spin and won’t lead to the outcome you want.

Instead, limit yourself to one topic or talking point per exchange. You’ll stay focused on the main reason for the conversation — without going off on tangents — while giving your colleague clear direction as to what needs to happen next.

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Use “touch point” conversations. Even when you stick to one topic, long conversations don’t help absent-minded colleagues stay on track. Use brief exchanges as a series of touch points instead.

Be concise when you present information. Keep the conversations short and be specific about when you will follow up. This conversation strategy is not meant to replace scheduled meetings; it’s an approach to interactions you’re already having, like when you bump into colleagues getting coffee or swing by their desk.

Provide just one option. Asking colleagues if they would prefer an email, text, call, video conference or Slack message to go over presentation notes might sound accommodating or courteous, but you’re actually adding to the problem. It’s called choice overload. People with too many similar options often have a difficult time making a decision. Being indecisive leads to distractions because they would rather do anything else than decide, even though you still have presentation notes to review. 

Make it easy for colleagues to decide right on the spot by offering one either/or option. “Would you like me to email or call you after I’m done pulling the notes together?”

You can’t eliminate all the distractions from work or make colleagues hang on your every word, but you can help them improve their attention spans long enough to improve productivity and make your life easier in the process.

Jen Mueller is the author of “The Influential Conversationalist” and a sports broadcaster based in Seattle. (Courtesy of Jen Mueller)
Jen Mueller is the author of “The Influential Conversationalist” and a sports broadcaster based in Seattle. (Courtesy of Jen Mueller)
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