Distract is Whack

Posted on May 5, 2011| by Geoffrey Tumlin

Distracted communication is degraded communication. Eliminate distractions wherever possible, and minimize their impact when they cannot be avoided. Don’t accept distractions at face value—if you can eliminate, moderate or otherwise reduce a distraction in your environment, do it, and your communication will almost certainly improve.

Below are five general categories of conversational distractions, with recommendations to reduce or eliminate the distractions for the good of your conversations.

Screens, screens, and more screens: Flat panel technology has resulted in screens everywhere—much to the detriment of focused communication in public and at home. If the screen has an off switch, use it if you can. Change seats if you are in a public space and can’t turn the screen off so you can get the images out of your line of sight and your conversational partner in it.

Lighting: Brighter lights are better for alertness, but keep in mind that many people become more sensitive to light as they age. Soft light can make an interaction feel more intimate and facilitate a positive mood—something you shouldn’t overlook in your personal life but a suggestion that you will probably not want to implement at company meetings.

Noise: The impact of noise on communication is less straightforward than visual distractions like screens and lighting. In general, more background noise distracts although it is true that certain amount of noise can cause people to move closer together to talk, which frequently promotes closeness as long as the noise doesn’t impede comprehension when the distance is reduced.

Spacing: Too close is obviously no good. It’s hard to imagine something more universally distracting to good communication than someone who invades our personal space. Almost everyone likes to maintain a zone of physical freedom and movement, and we get very uncomfortable as this space is impeded. Elevators are some of the quietest places on earth because the forced closeness—strangers in each other’s space—stifles the desire for interaction so completely.

In general, as the distance between people decreases but does not invade personal space, closeness has a positive interpersonal effect. Give people a little room, and healthy interactions can flourish—not enough room and you will be talking to yourself.

Temperature: When it comes to temperature, Goldilocks was onto something when she said that the little bear’s porridge was “just right.” Restaurateurs, like Goldilocks, have long known the importance of a comfortable temperature range: if you make the restaurant cold enough at closing time, lingering diners will pay up and vacate the premises.

Temperature can be distracting whenever it is outside of the just right range. When the other person signals discomfort with the temperature, see what you can do to get him or her feeling comfortable again or they will likely be distracted, diminishing your chances for good communication.

Slightly cool settings can keep people alert and forestall some lethargy, but too cool will cause many people to seek a warm escape. Warmth can bring a sense of coziness, but also sluggishness and weariness. For longer interactions and important discussions, having the temperature just right is not an incidental detail.

In sum, don’t accept distractions in your physical environment at face value. Do all you can to eliminate, fix, or otherwise moderate distractions. In future blog posts, we will discuss other ways to modify your physical surroundings in support of your conversational goals. Make the elimination of environmental distractions a part of your overall communication strategy.