I’m currently reading User Story Mapping by Jeff Patton. In a sidebar, he includes this gem:

I find that when I’m doing my best to listen to others, what they’re saying causes me to think of other ideas. I used to try to hold those ideas in my head and wait for a moment to inject them into the conversation, resorting to outright interruption if the time didn’t come soon enough. But then I realized I’d stopped listening to the person who was talking, as my limited brainpower was focused on recalling my great idea.

This totally describes me. I either have an idea that I have to share as soon as I can, or my brain goes off on a rabbit trail and I miss the next several minutes of the discussion. Or, when I should be listening to understand, I’m instead listening for ammunition to use in the next round of the debate. None of these things are good.

I have a very single-track brain so I find any kind of multi-tasking quite difficult. This includes listening to understand what others are saying while also trying to think of what I want to say.

Fortunately, Jeff also comes up with a solution:

Today, I simply scribble the idea on a sticky note and set it aside to wait for a better point in the conversation to inject it. Somehow writing it pops it out of my head so I can focus on what I’m hearing. And reading it from the sticky later helps me recall my idea and explain it.

This reminds me a lot of David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, where one of the central ideas is to get things out of your head and into a “trusted system” so that you keep more of your mental bandwidth available for what you’re working on.

I’ve been starting to try Jeff’s approach during meetings at work. I still miss a little bit of the discussion while I’m writing down my idea, but it’s a lot less than if I was trying to keep the idea in my head while others are speaking. I expect I’ll improve at this over time, and I’ll also start to use it in more one-on-one discussions as well.

If you’re like me and have trouble really listening well to others, try Jeff’s trick and see how it works for you.