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How to Focus Better In Conversations: 9 Strategies That Actually Work

Know how to focus. 9 strategies for improving your focus. Man staring intensely at camera

Ever been here? The discussion has been going for a while. Suddenly, silence snaps you back into the room. They’re awaiting your response… We all have. Our brains are wired this way and a certain amount of wandering is important for a healthy brain. [1] But when listening for crucial information, we need to know how to focus. Here are 9 strategies for helping improve your focus.

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Good Listeners Train Themselves How to Focus

Focus is the most important listening skill. Without focus none of the other listening techniques are of any use. 

As much as we’d love it though, focus isn’t a spontaneously occurring state. It seems that our minds wander a staggering 30 to 70% of the time depending on the task. [2] Not helpful when trying to listen! 

So we have to train our brain to focus.

I’ve tried all the focusing strategies below. Some fit well with my communication style and have become my ‘go-to’ refocusing strategies. Hopefully, some will be winners for you too.

Ask Questions

Asking Questions is one of the most effective strategies for staying focused - and it also boosts our effectiveness as listeners.

Our mind begins to wander when other people talk because it doesn't have any specific actions to process. Asking the speaker questions gives our brain something to do.

The beauty of this strategy is that takes away all the hard work of preventing our mind from wandering. We simply ask questions regarding the speaker’s statements and our brain focuses as a natural consequence.

In your next discussion, pay attention to words or phrases that:

  • capture your interest.
  • trigger a response from you (such as frustration, confusion, annoyance, excitement, curiosity and other emotional responses).
  • give you a glimpse of the speaker’s passion, knowledge, or experience about the conversation topic (e.g. enthusiasm, emotion, animated gestures, confidence, repeated mentions, etc.)

Then simply ask a question that relates to what you’ve just heard:

  • “That’s fascinating! How did they achieve that?”
  • “You seem to know a lot about this topic. How did you gain experience in this area?”
  • “You seem passionate. Why is that?”
  • “You keep coming back to [xyz]. Why the attraction?”

With respect to being an effective listener, Asking Questions is a fundamental skill. It’s a key part of ‘Active Listening’, a communication approach whose primary objective is to listen for understanding

Active Listening questions help us comprehend the speaker’s message in the way that they intended, and see the world through their eyes – through the lenses of their life experiences, attitudes, core beliefs, and world view.

And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download

"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions
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Want to Listen Better?

Enter your email to receive easy, weekly listening tips that actually work, as well as other free training tips and downloads.

From time to time I'll launch paid products for subscribers wanting to go further, but will never spam you - I hate it with a passion!

And as a kick-start, you’ll get the free download
"10 Active Listening Questions to Improve Focus and Boost Listening Effectiveness in Your Very Next Conversation".

How to focus with 10 Active Listening questions

3 Ways to Take Advantage of Boredom

Sometimes we lose focus and our mind disconnects because we’re bored.

Maybe we’re not interested in the current topic, the other person is doing all the talking, or the conversation has continued for too long.

Rather than silently suffering the frustration of boredom, use it to your advantage. Treat it as an internal cue to change up the conversation.

Here are three ways that I use boredom to regain focus.

Actively Engage In the Discussion Topic

Once I’m aware of boredom, my first action is to actively listen.

Ask questions to draw out more information about points that interest you – clarify them, encourage elaboration, restate statements, reflect feelings, summarise ideas.  

Asking questions forces us to engage with the speaker, reducing boredom caused by feeling disconnected from the conversation.  

Change the Topic

Sometimes the current conversation topic truly is boring to us.  In these cases I attempt to transition to another topic.

Leave the Conversation

Occasionally, I’ll discover that there's simply no common area of interest between me and the speaker. In this situation I’ll politely excuse myself if possible (e.g. social settings). Otherwise I’ll revert to the previous two methods and intentionally choose to learn something about the person and their topic.

5 Techniques to Ground Yourself in the Conversation

Although ‘grounding’ is mainly used to manage anxiety, grounding techniques can help us remain connected to the conversation when we feel ourselves losing focus and at risk of ending up ‘miles away’. [3]

Grounding techniques are “designed to ‘ground’ you in or immediately connect you with the present moment.” [4]  They often use one of our senses to snap us back to reality.

Here are five grounding techniques that I've adapted to be useful from an Active Listening perspective.

Use them when you catch your mind wandering. They will refocus your attention on the speaker.

Re-engage Eye Contact

Look the speaker in the eye when you become aware of drifting.

When our mind wanders the brain processes information from our senses in a less detailed manner. [5] This is why the speaker begins to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher and you lose visual focus.

Re-establishing eye contact re-engages your senses, forcing your brain out of your thoughts and onto the task of paying attention to the speaker.

Remember to only engage appropriate eye contact to the extent that everyone remains comfortable. Don’t give them the death stare or become the wide-eyed owl!

Focus on the Speaker’s Mouth

Focus on their mouth, as if reading their lips. This grounding technique works in a similar manner to re-engaging eye contact.

Breathe Deeply From Your Diaphragm

Discretely take a few slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm.

Breathing through your diaphragm forces you to breathe more deeply and slowly than with breathing from your chest.

A few diaphragmatic breaths will help regain your attention, making you more alert and able to focus on the speaker’s message.

However… discretion is the key approach. Huffing like a steam train might restore your attention, but will ruin the speaker’s train of thought and leave them with a lasting, strange impression of you.

Touch Something Cold

Cold temperatures can bring your mind back to the present moment.  

As with other grounding techniques the sensation of cold forces your brain to focus on the external senses. Even just the act of looking for something cold may be enough to snap you out of the daydream.

Suggestions:

  • If having a meal, hold onto a cold glass of water or drink some of it.
  • Touch the cold metal frame of some furniture.
  • If outside, rest your hand on a nearby metal street-sign pole or car. 

Shift Your Position

Try changing your weight from one leg to the other if standing, or crossing/uncrossing legs if sitting.  

I like straightening up in my chair.  Over long periods I begin to slouch a little.  Sitting more upright makes me feel more alert.

Only change positions occasional though.  Doing the Boogie Woogie during a conversation might limit your social connections.

BTW, this dance performance is amazing! All in the right setting, eh? 😉

Putting It All Together

Summary - 9 Ways of Staying Focused

  • Ask questions
  • Use boredom as a trigger to actively engage in the discussion topic
  • Change the topic if bored
  • Leave the conversation if focus is impossible
  • Ground yourself: Re-engage eye contact
  • Ground yourself: Focus on the speaker’s mouth
  • Ground yourself: Breathe deeply from your diaphragm
  • Ground yourself: Touch something cold
  • Ground yourself: Shift your position

Staying focused doesn’t mean beating ourselves up. We do ourselves a favour by accepting the fact that our brains will wander. There’s no point getting upset. That’s the way they’re wired.

But we do need to focus in order to be a good listener. So the best approach is to work cooperatively with our brain’s cognitive abilities and limitations.

Rather than trying to stay focused all the time - which is impossible - we can use the above strategies to refocus our mind as soon as we become aware that it’s beginning to wander.

And humbly admitting our loss of focus is occasionally appropriate too: “I’m sorry. I got distracted. Can you please repeat that?”

What focus strategy can you try out this week? Tell us in the comments below.


Notes

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About the Author

Hello, I’m Andrew Ward and the Kiwi guy writing most of the stuff on this website. You can read more about my story here.

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