If there’s an engineer in your life, I’m certain you often feel ignored by them. Don’t take it personally, it happens to everyone. My goal is to explain why they seem to be ignoring you and how to improve your situation.

Notice I did not say gain full attention. Having the full attention of an engineer is possible but ask yourself, would you feel comfortable knowing each word you use is being analyzed for contextual meaning, frequency of use and emotional content. If you have visual contact, every movement you make is being scrutinized for meaning, velocity and control. Yes, we do all that and more. Trust me, you don’t want our full attention.

I can’t speak for other engineers but I read and process information at about 1000 words a minute. Well, if I’m going to be honest, that’s an exaggeration. I only hit that speed when I read for pleasure, technical articles are about 500 words a minute. On the other hand, you talk at less than 150 words per minute. Unless you are revealing secrets of the universe to me, math included, I process your words the moment you speak them and hunger for more. This means, at best, you are requiring slightly less than 30% of my attention.

Worse, because your speech is so slow, I often finish your sentence for you before you finish talking. This allows me to closely inspect the ceiling joists of the restaurant because I’ve never seen that type of joint. What’s the advantage of that type of joint? Was it required by code?

Now I realize that this sounds like I consider you boring and find the ceiling joists more interesting. Nothing could be farther from the truth but my mind has plenty of time to process your words and analyze the ceiling joists. True, I’m cheating by finishing your sentences to give me more processing time on the joists but history shows I’m not missing much. If you doubt me, just look at how often your phone is able to predict the words you’re about to use.

Just like your phone, I do get it wrong at times but practice has allowed me to seem as if I fully follow the conversation. Days later, when things have gone horribly wrong, it’s not surprising we both remember a different conversation.

This week, I enjoyed my commute to work while listening to an Audible book titled Verbal Judo. I mention the book here because it espouses a key concept, “It’s the responsibility of the one talking to make sure they are understood.” There’s a similar concept in writing, “Write what your audience wants to hear not what you want to say.”

In other words, you really don’t care why I don’t listen to you, you want to know how to put a stop to it. Fair enough, but remember I’m taking a significant risk here, there are some truths you are not meant to know.

Subject matter: Let’s face it, there are some subjects I will never care about. I will never care which actress is dating which actor or actress. I’m rational enough to admire the characters they portray without wanting to know more about the person they are. I can try to fake interest in it but you can also do me the courtesy of not expecting me to listen.

Pauses: Be they for time to gather your thoughts or for dramatic effect, pauses only give me time to turn my thoughts to such things as why did my last 3D print fail? Do I need to increase the print bed temperature? Good luck on getting my attention again. Pause in your speech and my listening to you is only an illusion.

Problems: You already know better than expect an engineer to keep listening to you after you describe a problem to them. You’re far more likely to have your dog ignore that piece of steak you dropped on the floor than to hold your engineer’s attention after describing a problem. 

Whining: I don’t mind if you whine. As long as it’s not a problem I need to resolve, I don’t have to pay attention. On the other hand, don’t start your whine as if it’s a problem you need solved and then get upset when I try to provide a solution. We’re wired to solve problems. Describing a problem you don’t want fixed only serves to frustrate both of us.

Data: When you actually want me to do the one thing I’m good at, solving problems, bring me real data. Don’t tell me that you want to expand your garden without having an idea of how much expansion you want. Twenty questions to get to a square footage wears me out and with each question I may decide to abandon this problem and consider one with more data. You know, something like how many grains of sand are in a cubic foot.

Emotions: Yes, we feel emotions. We’re affected by emotions and during a really important presentation I can even do a great job of faking emotions. Still, I tend to ignore anything with high emotional content. I can’t fit it into an equation. I don’t see how it improves a situation. If half your words have high emotional content, it’s a safe bet that my comprehension and attention are low.

Extreme Politeness: Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe manners provide a necessary lubrication for society. No manners and everything comes to a screeching halt. Still, you are wasting my time when you ask me if you can ask a question. It’s far easier on both of us if you just ask. Last week’s commuting audio was History’s Greatest Military Blunders from the Great Courses. One of the blunders was caused by the commander politely telling his officer he could send reinforcements if he wanted. I guess the officer didn’t understand this was actually an order. We appreciate direct unambiguous dialog. To us, that is being polite.

Pick your time: Expecting us to pay attention to you when we are concentrating on a problem is akin to buying a lottery ticket. Your ticket might win but past performance suggests otherwise.

In Summation

If you can sit down and convey your meaning with high data content, limited pauses, minimal emotional content and be very clear on our role in listening, we will be paying attention, at least for that full 30%. I’ll bet that’s twice as good as you have now.

© 2017 – 2019, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.