The Single Most Important Life Skill That Is Critical To Successful Meetings

The capacity to be an excellent listener is fundamental to effective communication, which is a must for leading great meetings. Managing meeting flow and the collection of important meeting content (i.e. meeting assets) hinges on the capability of the meeting leader to be fully attentive.


Have you ever attended a meeting where the meeting leader is noticeably distracted and mentally absent? This person might be physically present but his/her mind is in a faraway place. Like riding a bus with a texting bus driver, a distracted meeting leader is a danger to meeting effectiveness.

When most people think of listening, they think of an instinctive human function (such as breathing or blinking) that requires little conscious thought or training. But nothing could be further from the truth. With hectic professional lives filled by enormous levels of distraction, the quality of our listening is inversely related to the amount of distraction we are experiencing at any point in time.

Fortunately, listening is an active process that can be strengthened and conditioned. And it is essential for great meeting leadership. As a meeting leader you must be prepared to minimize your distraction and fully listen in any meeting that you are leading.

We have identified two listening “zones” that meeting leaders find themselves in during the course of a meeting, the zone of distraction and the zone of focus.

Zone of Distraction
The zone of distraction is when you are physically present in the meeting, but mentally you are in a different place. This zone occurs anytime your attention drifts to anything other than:

* Meeting attendees

* Meeting objectives and agenda

* Meeting process

* Content of the meeting (for example, meeting assets)

Some meeting leaders might fall into this distraction zone for just a few moments, others might spend an entire meeting in this space. This zone results from your focus being diverted to another external stimulus or your own internal dialogue.

Examples of external stimulus include email, texts, phone calls or sidebar meeting conversations. They are things in the environment that draw your attention away from the content of the meeting and to another place. We all get the urge to check our phones every now and again to see if we’ve received an important email, text or phone call. That might just be a way of life for most of us, but a meeting leader cannot succumb to the lures of this external distraction.

We can also get caught up on our own internal conversation. This is a preoccupation with your thoughts or emotions. In this instance you might actually be looking directly at a meeting attendee who is speaking while nodding your head. But in reality you’re not really “hearing” a word that he/she is saying. You might be thinking about a personal matter, other work that you need to perform, or just considering what you want to say next. In either case, it is easy for our attention to wander away from the content of the meeting if we are not actively listening.

Meeting leaders must consciously maintain a focus on the meeting, the content and the needs of attendees to avoid the zone of distraction. The first step is to be aware of your tendencies. Recognize when you slip out of focus and immediately shift your focus back to your meeting attendees, objectives, agenda and content—back to the zone of focus.

Zone of Focus
The zone of focus means that you are fully engaged in the meeting dialogue. Your focus and attention is on the meeting objectives, attendees, process and the corresponding discussion. You are listening to what attendees are saying and how they are saying it. You are interpreting their body language, hearing their tones and consciously soaking it all in.

While you are listening, you are also acutely aware of the group dynamic. You can sense when others are paying attention and assess if attendees are confused, have a question or want to comment.

When you are in this zone of focus, you are able to effectively sift important content from extraneous dialogue. You can more clearly perform your role and clarify essential assets generated throughout the meeting. Further, your attentiveness in this zone influences attendees to maintain their focus and engagement. When meeting leaders check out of the discussion others are sure to follow. Fortunately the opposite is also true.

In this space you resist the temptation to respond to the external or internal distractions that are sure to present themselves throughout the meeting.

Simply stated, maintaining attentive listening is a critical responsibility of the meeting leader. With focused listening a meeting leader is in a powerful position to impact the quality of meeting results—especially when listening is supplemented with the skill of asking great questions as we covered in a previous blog post.

What are some tactics that you have found helpful for staying in the zone of focus and keeping your fellow meeting attendees there as well?

Leave us a comment below.