If there is one habit many office goers can benefit from in the New Year, it is giving others the gift of attention. We are constantly distracted in our workplaces today—telephone calls, WhatsApp messages, emails, social media, open office chatter, constant interruptions, and cricket scores. This has resulted in a worrying lack of attention, leading to frustratingly disengaged conversations.

The remedy is simple: Aim to ACE (Attentive Conversations Everytime) whenever you talk with colleagues. The rules of ACE are simple—pay attention to what the person in front of you is saying, and ensure that you speak mindfully and attentively. What we need to master are the methods of this important art form. Here is an ACE primer.

Keep that smartphone away

Every time you get into a meeting, keep your smartphone on the farthest table or surface in the room, far, far away from your reach. One of my colleagues does this all the time, and he tells me that this move is an absolute game changer, because its benefits are enormous and immediate—you do not face the temptation of reaching out to your phone every second to check on momentous new messages that may have arrived. Consequently, your total focus is on the conversation. And that works wonders for a meaningful dialogue.

Get out of office

Often, if you want to engage in a deep conversation without distraction, it may be best to leave the office and hop across to a nearby café. This takes you far away from the noise of the workplace, and there is no interruption from pesky colleagues dropping in casually. Just the two or three of you, with a cup each of tea or coffee to liven up your senses, is a perfect setting for an excellent meeting, particularly if the topic requires your undivided attention. This works equally well for creative meetings which benefit from relaxed attention and an informal setting.

if the meeting has few participants, consider a walking meeting instead of being cooped up in a room.
if the meeting has few participants, consider a walking meeting instead of being cooped up in a room.

Lunchtime walk the talk

Never underestimate the power of walking and talking together, particularly after a good lunch. Conversations over lunchtime walks, in the roads around your office block, or in a nearby park, often yield very attentive behaviour. The sheer rhythm of the walk helps, and if this becomes a daily or weekly ritual, then both people involved happily set aside this time exclusively for speaking with each other. In fact, this becomes a talking routine to look forward to, and is best suited for informal dialogues with close colleagues on your team on wide ranging areas of common interest.

Take note

You can ACE a meeting by bringing your notebook along, carrying all the points you wish to discuss. These points help you track the meeting and cover the required ground. Further, when you develop a habit of taking down brief notes of key messages that the person in front of you is communicating, this ensures that you are attentive and constantly listening. Arriving with notes, and then taking down notes during the meeting, conveys your seriousness about the conversation, which in itself can lead to enhanced attentiveness.

Fly and speak

An excellent ACE technique is to schedule a meeting while flying together. Book your seats next to each other on a flight, and use the couple of hours en-route to complete an important conversation. I can tell you from experience that this works brilliantly—no mobile signals, no intrusions (except the in-flight snacks service). What also helps is that the economy class seats are so cramped these days that it is difficult to get up frequently, so both people have no option but to sit tight and listen to each other, at close quarters. So, well before you land, you have landed all the right messages with each other.

Buffer and focus

Quite often, we rush out of one meeting into the next. This does not bode well for attentiveness, because we carry with us raw thoughts, open questions and sometimes heightened emotions, from the first meeting that has just concluded. These take away our attention from the new meeting which we have just entered. To deal with this, do your best to provide a buffer time of at least half hour between consecutive meetings—use this buffer to have a cup of tea, recover substantially from the first session, and enter the second discussion with a clear, attentive mind. Buffering takes some effort, because you may have to convince others to move meeting schedules around a bit—but it is an ACE habit.

Short is sweet

An ace trick up your sleeve (that’s where your wrist watch normally is) is to define a tight time duration for each conversation. Both people then know, right from the start, that time is short and the agenda at hand has to be concluded quickly, so they tend to remain very attentive and focused throughout the meeting. If the default time slot you normally use for a meeting is 60 minutes, try reducing it sharply to 30 minutes. Shorter time slots work really well for transactional and routine meetings. And as you become increasingly better at short conversations, you can gift time back to your colleague and yourself, by finishing early. Everyone welcomes the gift of time.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. His ACE habit is to make and keep eye contact with the person he is having a conversation with, because he believes that eyes are windows to the mind.

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