How can we encourage concentration?
How many times has someone been asked a question in a lecture but wasn’t paying attention?
We have all been there, and at times, been the one that wasn’t listening. Humans are not naturally good at paying attention and concentrating for long periods of time, particularly in settings such as education.
This inevitably presents a huge problem to anyone trying to teach, deliver training or even just a speech; how do you get people to actually listen to more than the first couple of minutes? Ideally, we want our participants or audience to listen, engage, absorb and reflect on the content we are discussing. Otherwise, if you’ve invested time and resource in developing a training programme, having a room full of day dreamers is going to be incredibly costly.
And online teaching is no different to traditional face to face methods. If anything, maintaining attention can be harder as there are more distractions and it’s easy to click away to a flashing advert in a sidebar. So how do we ensure people watch, pay attention, engage and reflect on material?
Here are some top tips that should help your audience stay with you throughout the presentation.
We all know that targets and goals help keep people focused in many areas of life. Delivering material online or in a training environment should be no different; not only does it help to break a large topic of section into smaller, more manageable sections, it can provide the audience with a sense of achievement when they get there. Having something to aim for is definitely an incentive to stay tuned in.
Another useful way to maintain an audience’s attention, is by giving them something they want to pay attention to! Jelly baby anyone?
If this is in a scenario where they may not have chosen to take part, for example at an employment training session, it can be harder to keep them interested. By using a variety of techniques, colour, images and other varying methods of presentation, you are ensuring it is as interesting as possible. If the audience is simply presented with pages and pages of text to read or click through they will switch off almost instantly.
One of the simplest ways to maintain an audiences attention is to engage with your audience and make the presentation interactive. This will ensure they are paying attention as they will want to know the answers. Moreover, it also provides an excellent opportunity for reflection and a chance to fill in any gaps in participants’ knowledge.
It’s also helpful to recognise that every learner or participant is completely different, and will find different areas interesting and challenging. It is impossible to have an entirely unique course or presentation for every person but variety can be included. Ensure there is a sufficient variation in the methods, levels of complexity and themes you use to communicate, to maintain interest from each person.
Different people will respond to different methods and somehow you need to incorporate a bit of each into the presentation, lecture, lesson or speech.
And one of the most powerful ways to keep learners engaged, is to simply ask people to reflect on the material. What are they enjoying, not enjoying, finding difficult? The only way to find out what is stopping people from paying attention throughout is to ask them. You can then adapt the material as necessary to ensure maximum engagement and attention next time, or if you’re really good – during the training!
Easier to spell than you might think!
Whilst this one’s not too difficult to say, it does involve a fair bit of science, so thinking caps on everyone! In summary, neuroplasticity is a general term that is applied to changes in neural pathways, synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity. Or for a more practically applied summary – this is about learning, change and our ability to flex.
Various parts of our brains such as synapses (the minute gaps between our brain cells, where information is communicated), respond to changes in the environment, thinking, behaviour and emotions. So why is this relevant to businesses?
Well imagine a large organisation that once made desktop PC’s, who boldly declared to the world that the tablet was a passing phase. They’ve now had to significantly change their business model and thus behaviour and thinking to accommodate the new environment they find themselves in. That change required a fair amount plasticity, adaptability and flex.
From the shop floor right to the boardroom, an understanding of neuroplasticity can give us some valuable insights in supporting organisations with many kinds of change.
But back to the brain. The brain works the same way as other muscles; to strengthen it, it requires exercise and regular work outs. Unfortunately the brain has a ‘use it or lose it’ approach; by adulthood we have already lost approximately 50% of our synapses due to inactivity. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t learn new skills as an adult.
An adult brain is still capable of making new connections from learning new skills. In fact the more it is used, the more connections are made in the brain.
So what does this mean for learning new skills or behaviours in the workplace?
We can work with our existing capabilities but importantly, those skills and strengths can also be increased. The brain works best when it is building on existing connections rather than starting from scratch, so it makes sense to build on what you already know or are already good at.
In Development Centres or learning programmes for example, people need to be able to identify relationships in the material or make it relevant to something they already know.
This will strengthen the existing neural pathways which makes learning much more likely. Similarly, repetition will reinforce the neural connections so delegates should repeat the skills or actions until these synaptic connections are solidly reinforced.
Employers can take note of these principles of plasticity, but taking advantage of these in the workplace remains a slightly grey area. We can take a broad brush and apply some of the learning from neuroplasticity to everyone – that’s fine. But what if employers could somehow identify employees who already had a large number of connections, in theory these people could be taught new skills – and quickly.
Could we one day look at measuring learning agility and potential through brain scans? Then what about those employees who don’t already have high plasticity levels? Isn’t that a form a discrimination? That might be a debate for a future generation.
Whilst the area of neuroplasticity in employment is still an emerging field, there are some far reaching implications not just on the horizon, but in the here and now. And we can’t put it any better than this article by not one, but three super smart people, Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick:
“When corporate leaders talk about change, they usually have a desired result in mind . . .. They know that if they are to achieve this result, people throughout the company need to change their behavior and practices, and that can’t happen by simple decree. How, then, does it happen? In the last few years, insights from neuroscience have begun to answer that question.
New behaviors can be put in place, but only by reframing attitudes that are so entrenched that they are almost literally embedded in the physical pathways of employees’ neurons.”
And so in the here and now, we can consider the implications of neuroplasticity for our hopes of behavioural change. If we want managers, leaders, customer service colleagues and all to do something differently – we’ll need to build on what they know, use their strengths and challenge the attitudes and ways of doing things that are deep set in the organisational culture.
The Idea: Intelligence isn’t fixed.
World-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in decades of research on achievement and success, has discovered a truly groundbreaking idea-the power of our mindset.
New research shows that rather than intelligence being fixed, the more you challenge your mind to learn, the more the brain grows and gets stronger. Adopting a ‘growth mindset’ – believing your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts – has been found in studies to help children build resilience and achieve better results at school, as well as adults to reach their own personal and professional goals.
It is therefore beneficial for us all, at any age, to believe we and others can learn and get better at things. This changes the way we learn ourselves, teach others, lead others and support our children.
Next time you set yourself a goal, try moving your mindset from fixed to growth. This means actively embracing challenges as opportunities to learn and viewing any setbacks- or /lack of success as ‘not yet’ rather than failure.
This is like the classic story of Edison making 1000 attempts to create a light bulb. He did not say “I’ve failed,” he said “I’ve not got it right yet.” Use “I’m not there yet,” in your setbacks to help you focus on learning and growing from every experience. This will help you achieve better results in the end.
The Idea: Thinking Habits and how to change them.
Known as the father of the new science of positive psychology, Martin E.P. Seligman draws on more than twenty years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism enhances the quality of life, and how anyone can learn to practice it.
Habits of thinking, although learned in childhood and adolescence, need not be forever. Whilst mild pessimism has its uses, pessimistic prophecies are in general self-fulfilling. As we believe that life will be hard and we will never succeed, so we see that starting to come true.
Although life imposes the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as the pessimist, the optimist weathers them better, which leads to greater achievement at work, better physical health and even prolonged life.
Choose the way you think: optimism can be learned, taught and measured. By learning to speak to yourself about setbacks from a more encouraging viewpoint, you will build your resilience and ultimately improve the quality of both your work and home life. The tool for this is the three Ps – Personal, Permanent, Pervasive.
When you face a setback or something difficult, a pessimistic and confidence-damaging way of thinking is that it’s all your fault (personal), it will always be this bad (permanent) and actually this just proves that everything you do is a failure (pervasive to other areas of your life). Switch this round to “it’s not all my fault, I can learn from this and do better / avoid this in future and just because this went wrong here, it doesn’t mean it affects everything else – I can still be successful in other areas of my life.”
This is a more encouraging way of thinking that will help you focus on learning and feel better about the situation.
What triggers binary thinking and why it’s an issue
Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling uncomfortable about making a decision or you’re anxious about something, that you seem to only have two bad options?
It’s a sign you may be getting stuck in binary thinking – either it’s A or B. Black or White. Or an unattractive option against an equally unattractive option.
This is one of the limiting effects of our brain’s tendency to narrow our thinking when we’re under pressure. It can be helpful to understand more about why this happens and what you can do about it when you find yourself stuck in binary thinking.
So why do our brains narrow in thinking when we’re under pressure? It’s important to remember that our primary instinct is to survive and so when we face anything we perceive as pressure or a threat, then to some degree, our brain, muscles, hormones and chemicals are in survival mode. You can dig into the neuroscience behind this here.
That might sound extreme for simply deciding how to address a difficult conversation with a colleague, but the fact remains that since the days of escaping attacks by sabre-tooth tigers, we still have the same fight or flight mechanisms for any perceived threat.
The discomfort and anxiety caused by the idea of having an awkward conversation with a colleague registers in our brains in a similar way to a physical threat to our safety. And so it makes some sense that during these times of pressure, our brain’s priority is not to be as creative and open as possible in thinking.
The brain’s priority is to get us out of the problem, so quick and minimal options that get us towards a decision and outcome is the focus: think fight or flight. This might translate in your difficult conversation scenario to thinking your only options are to go in and shout at the person or say nothing. Or you might decide that it’s fire them now or forever be stuck with their poor performance.
What we need is more options…
How can we break our brain’s natural reaction and find more options? This is where mindfulness comes in. We need to be consciously aware of what is happening in order to choose a different way of thinking.
So pay attention to those times when you find yourself thinking you only have two options. Think of the thought “I can either do A or B” as an alarm bell – a warning that you are in narrow thinking and it could be beneficial for you to move into more open and creative thinking.
Once you have recognised that you’ve gone into that binary thinking, you can now choose to come out of it. Here are some top tips for getting into a more creative space:
Tell yourself, or draw it out if you work well with visuals, that there are many options in between A and B.
Ask yourself, what if I could work out four other options between A and B? How might that help me? Posing this as a question rather than a factual statement engages the brain and challenges the brain to start thinking more creatively
This moves the brain to a future-focus
Focus on the outcomes – what do you want to achieve? This moves the brain to a future-focus, imagining what we want to happen, which again breaks us out of the threat response.
In the difficult conversation example, you might say that you want the outcomes to be that the person changes their behaviour and that your working relationship is still intact.
In communicating bad news, like the need for redundancies, you might say you want the outcome to be that people know what is happening and why, and that people know you are keen to help them get through this.
It is helpful to think about your outcomes in terms of what you want other people to feel, say and do. As this can be a clear starting point for you deciding what you need to feel, say and do.
Now plan out some other options. Based on the outcomes you want, what are some different options? What could you say and do? Which options feel more appropriate? Why?
Now you have moved from limited options to a clearer focus on the outcomes you desire. So you can plan your next move.
Treading your own path – not easy, but you won’t regret it!
We’re continuing the trend of inviting guest writers to contribute to our site.
And this month we’ve got an absolute peach! We’d like to introduce Jo Pursaill, formaly Director of Global Talent Development at American Express. You can connect with Jo here!
But enough of our waffle. Ladies and Gentlemen we proudly present Jo Pursaill…
‘Read something every day that inspires you’. This was the advice given by leadership guru, Ken Blanchard, at a conference I attended a year or so ago. This really resonated with me. It can be easy to get caught up in day-to-day ‘stuff’, and not always stand back and remember the things that are important.
For a while now, I’ve been subscribing to ‘The Daily Guru’ – an email service which sends me [very] short inspirational emails each morning. Many are quotes which take less than a minute to read. Some naturally resonate more than others, but overall they are great and often help provide a sense of perspective and focus. Here’s one on authenticity I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:
“To be authentic is literally to be your own author…, to discover your own native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them”
— Warren G Bennis
This one is on my mind, because whilst it seems obvious and easily said, it would appear not so easy in practice. I’ve been talking to lots of people about their life, work and career – trying to get an understanding of what ‘career’ means to them and how they define meaningful work.
Interestingly a theme which has come through strongly is that many people don’t actually know what they want – and this finding doesn’t appear to be uncommon. In an article featured in Forbes Magazine, Kathy Caprino – a Career and Executive Coach who has coached hundreds of professionals – highlights this is something she hears consistently. One of the top reasons people give for wanting to leave their job is due to a lack of meaning or purpose.
The topic of purpose is receiving a lot of attention at the moment. It’s an essential ingredient for a fulfilled life and career, yet it can be hard for people to define.
It’s different for everyone and therefore needs to start with – as Warren Bennis puts it – ‘discovering your own native energies and desires’.
In Bronnie Ware’s book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the author shares her experiences/ learnings when working in palliative care and tending to the needs of people who were dying. She spends intimate time with them at this difficult stage near the end of their life, and gets to know them, their life experiences, and their regrets. The top regret? ‘I wish I had lived a life true to myself and not what others expected of me’. I was quite sad to read this….to get to the end of your life and feel this…
So how do you find and tread your own path?
There is clear value in taking some time to figure this out – for the individual, and also for organizations looking to support employees in their career development and provide opportunities to do meaningful work. Research shows that employees who are optimally motivated and doing work matched to their strengths/passions are 10 times more engaged by their jobs, 31% more productive, and significantly more likely to stay (Optimal Motivation; Blanchard; 2015).
In terms of the ‘how’, conclusions from my research are that whilst this is articulated in different ways, it seems to boil down to 3 things:
Make a deliberate effort to get to know yourself better. There are various self-reflection questions and exercises that can help (organizations can provide toolkits, training and coaching to help employees in this exploration). A few thought triggers: What have been your greatest achievements? What can you do better than most? What would others say? What do you get ‘lost in’ and time just flies by? This can take time to figure out – it can sometimes help to draw a ‘life map’ plotting key points in your life, to get you thinking. Also just to ‘observe’ yourself over time and see what you’re noticing about what energizes you, what you’re drawn to, etc.
Spend time really figuring out what you want. There are unlikely to be straight-cut answers, and again it will take some exploration. Questions to consider include: What is your personal definition of success? (it’s different for everyone). What do you value most in your work/life? For what do you want to be known? Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’ll enjoy something until you actually do it. Some recent advice I received….write down all the things you think you might want, then create low risk ‘testing strategies’ for each so you can try them out, e.g. talk to someone already doing the job to learn about ‘a day in the life of’, do a short-term project assignment. Then you can start crossing things off and/or get closer to what you want.
Make a plan and start taking action. Now you’re clearer on what you want, you can be more deliberate about the things you can focus on to get there. Who do you need to speak with, what new skills/experiences will you need, what relationships do you need to build? If it’s a big change it can be scary – in reality there’s no getting away from this as it’s a natural part of the process. A coach can sometimes help to work through any fears or barriers. It’s also a good idea to write down your career aspirations/plan to help you stay focused. Amazingly, Ken Blanchard has written his obituary, personal mission and values and reads them every day!
What I’m learning is that treading your own path is not necessarily easy or straight-forward – it takes time, exploration, self-honesty and a deliberate effort. But in the grand scheme of life and looking back on a good one…it’s got to be worth it!
To get in touch with Jo directly about this article you can follow this link,
Does your mindset make you more employable?
Traditionally we have been brought up to believe that if we work hard, we achieve more and then we might get the things we want and be happy. But research over the past 12 years into the life habits and thinking of people who are successful, happy and fulfilled in all aspects of their lives reveals that we have this the wrong way round.
This research shows very clearly that the happiest people, or those that live fulfilled lives and have achieved consistently – they worked on being happy first.
How on earth does this apply to recruitment or even job hunting? Here we take a closer look at the impact that bringing a positive mindset to your job hunting could have on your employment prospects.
Guess what happens if you click the image…?