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Don’t Speak 'Til You See the Whites of Their Eyes

We often forget that the brain has certain capacity limits.

"What can I help you with?" asked the Apple Store clerk as he kept his eyes focused on what he was entering into his iPhone.

"I'll wait ‘til you're finished," said I.

"No, go ahead," said he. "I can multitask."

"No, you can't!" said I with a smile, which finally got him to look at me and listen.

This scenario is quite common: It happens to me routinely at the pharmacy as well. People are busy, so they want to get started with the next customer while they're finishing up with the last one. I've blogged previously about the overwhelming evidence that your brain can't multitask its attention, and that when it tries, both tasks suffer. Each task takes longer to complete, and what is done is more likely to contain errors and is less memorable.

What more evidence do people need? These incidents led me to think back to some classic experiments on split attention that were conducted way back in the 1950's. In a study by Colin Cherry(1), participants received two different messages, one to each ear, and they were required to repeat one of the messages word for word as they heard it, to ensure that that message was fully attended to. After performing this task, they were tested on what they remembered of the message that was played to the other ear. Almost nothing, it turns out.

Yes, they could say whether the second message involved human speech or not, and whether the speaker was a male or female. However, they were unable to say what the message was about or recall a single word of it.

Shouldn't this give us pause when we're trying to communicate something important? How can we integrate this knowledge into our daily communication habits? And how can we discourage the people we deal with from multitasking? Here are some ideas:

1. When clerks or other associates you're speaking to focus their eyes on computer screens or gadgets, simply wait until they look at you—and stop talking when they look away.

2. When a medical professional is entering your information into the computer, be sure to pause and let him catch up—otherwise, the record won't be as accurate and complete as you want it.

3. When the bank teller is looking up your account, refrain from small talk until she finds the information. And don't pose a second question while she's looking up the answer to your first one.

4. If you're making a presentation to people who are taking notes, be sure to provide pauses or repetitions so they're not writing about one thing while listening to another.

We've become so used to instantaneous feedback and are so averse to silence that we often forget that the human brain has certain capacity limits. We can ignore these limits and still get things done, but the quality, accuracy and efficiency of what we do suffers unnecessarily.

"No, you can't" is not an insult. It's a fact of life.

(1) Cherry, E. C. (1953). Some experiments on the recognition of speech, with one and with two ears. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 25 (5), 975-979.

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