3.1 Engaging The Other Person's Attention

Before you can get on a bus, you first need to stop it. Before you can have a useful conversation, you first need to engage the other person’s attention in a way that encourages dialogue. That’s what this skill is all about.

a. Not assuming the other person is tuned in

It’s very easy to assume that our conversational partners are eager to listen to what we have to say. Such assumptions are the enemy of effective dialogue. Good communicators, when in the Explainer/Teller role, know how important it is to actively engage the other person's attention. You have to convince the other person that what they are about to hear is going to be interesting, or useful, or at least relevant in some way.

Think of the situation from the Understander’s perspective. Left on our own, we often become preoccupied with our own concerns. We listen to our own thoughts. We talk to ourselves in our heads. It can take a considerable effort to redirect this attention towards someone else, especially if we already have some important things on our mind.

Here are some hints on how to engage your conversational partner's attention.

b. Thinking about what you body language is ‘saying’

Your body language is important. An indifferent slouch is hardly the way to capture your conversational partner's attention. If you’re slouching, then sit up straight. Leaning forward a little is another way of catching the other person's attention. If the message is important, then it's vital to face the other person and establish eye contact. This is something we do automatically in certain circumstances. For instance, we all know how to turn and catch the eye of a passing waiter. It’s the same with conversations. If you seem distracted, are staring at the television, or are talking in a monotone, you can hardly expect the other person to get excited about the conversation ahead.

c. Choosing the right way to introduce a topic or point

How you introduce a topic within a conversation, or introduce the topic at the beginning of a conversation, is important. The ‘right way’ means a way that increases the probability of dialogue. The skilled Explainer/Teller knows that if the other person is to ‘pay’ attention, it helps to offer something in return. Here are just few ways in which you can do this.

Showing how much you value the other person's attention.

"David, I'd like your opinion about … "

"Grace, I'd appreciate it if you could help me sort out my thoughts on … "

Indicating what the other person can get out of the conversation.

"Danny, if we can sort out our plan now, I won't have to bother you with it again."

"Susan, something happened to me over at John's yesterday that I think will help you plan for the reunion."

"Tony, I've got a bit of bad news, but I think I know a way of turning it into good news. Let me tell you the bad part first."

Using a bit of drama to awaken the interest of the other.

"You'll never guess what happened to me yesterday … "

"We'd all like a marketing plan that can't miss. I think I have a just such a plan, or at least the outline of one. But it won't work without you. Here's what I mean."

Highlighting the inherent importance of what you’re going to say.

"I know we kid a lot about Jason … Mostly good-natured, I'd say. But I think our kidding has backfired. Let me tell you what happened."

"This afternoon's appointment is not just another casual meeting with the show's director. If I read the situation right, this is decision-making time."

These are not the only attention-getting strategies, of course. They are meant to ‘prime the pump’. You can probably think of more. But attention-getting strategies should be you, not gimmicks. They should be related to the importance of the matter at hand.

d. In difficult cases, choosing strategies that help your partner be more receptive

If what you have to say has some ‘bad news’ element about it, choose an opening that factors in the understandable misgiving of the other person. Say something that will help the other person to be more receptive. In the following example, Leona's father wants to talk to her about her exam results.

He begins by saying, "Leona, I want to have chat about your exam results, but don't get me wrong. I don't want to get on your case. I just want to see what I might do to help."

Leona relaxes a bit. It's still going to be a somewhat difficult conversation, but it now has a better chance of being productive. The general principle is clear: say things to others in such a way that they can respond, rather than react. Part of tuning in to others, therefore, is getting some idea of their current frame of mind as early as possible in the conversation. Not to manipulate them, of course, but to have a dialogue with them as effectively as possible.

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