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Multi-tasking: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risk?

For a moment, put yourself in these situations and consider what you'd think and feel.

  1. You are on the phone with a colleague and are fairly certain the person on the other end is typing on their computer keyboard while you are speaking.
  2. You are speaking in a meeting and the colleague you most want to hear your message is checking her Blackberry.

Do you feel heard? What messages are you receiving? Many people will question whether they are being heard and also may come away feeling they received very little respect for their ideas and their time.

Not feeling respected or thinking own opinions matter are frequent issues in workplaces. Multi-tasking while communicating is a small action that has a much larger consequence that is intended. Time pressures encourage busy people to make use of every moment. Yet it is worth realizing that people say they come away from these situations very frustrated and often angry. When people don't feel heard or respected, some people are direct and appropriately let you know at the time. Others who respond less directly may pull away from the working relationship or may let their frustration or disappointment build to present itself later, possibly when you need that person's cooperation or support the most.

"Multi-taskers" quite often think they have the ability to do two (maybe three) things at once and still hear everything being said. In reality, they may be able to hear all of the WORDS being spoken. However, they almost always are at risk of missing key communication subtleties found in tone, non-verbal cues, and what the speaker is NOT SAYING. Attempting to listen while fitting other tasks into the process carries a huge risk of sending signals that you don't respect the speaker and/or don't care about what is being said and eventually erodes the relationship.

The next time you are tempted to multi-task while listening to a colleague, be both realistic and weigh the risk. Realistically, your limits of concentration probably won't hold up to the task. More importantly, ask yourself if whittling down your to-do list is worth implying that others are not very important to you.

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