Updated: Dec 21, 2020
I love talking to people. As a Communication Strategist, I get an absolute kick out of helping people navigate problems in their lives. If you are a high level communicator or a leader that is frequently sought out to give advice or guidance to others, you know what I’m talking about! This level of responsibility does come with a potential downside though; there may be way more demand for your time than you have supply.
Let’s face it, talking to people can be difficult. It can be even more difficult when you are rushed or aren't fully invested in a particular conversation. I’m talking about those conversations that seem to come at the wrong time or take a great deal of time to get through. I’m talking about those occasional conversations with people that drain you to empty. Or perhaps, it's a conversation that interrupts your personal or professional plans. Sometimes, talking to people can be down right inconvenient.
This was a personal challenge for me as I entered into ministry straight out of law enforcement. When I spoke as police officer, I was quick, to the point, assertive and brief. Ministry was a little different. Not only did it demand a great deal of my time and energy, but unlike law enforcement, I couldn’t be brief and dismissive in the name of getting to the point. Talking to people intentionally takes time. Even though I genuinely wanted to be there for others, I discovered that I was losing time for myself. I needed to find some balance.
So how do you navigate discussions and conversations like these with care, especially when they stand to consume so much of your own personal time? How do you communicate, “Hey, I care about you and this issue, but this really isn’t a good time” without being dismissive or rude?
It all comes down to time management. More specifically, it comes down to this: "Change the time, Make the time, Spend the time." I discuss this in greater detail during one of my talks titled InTact. The fourth law tactical communication is timing. Understanding how to effectively manage your time is essential to maintaining effective margin. Margin ensures that you have not only the time, but also the energy to engage with people when they need you most.
#1 Change the Time.
If you know that “now” is not a good time, you have to communicate that up front. Don’t do what I used to do and jump into a conversation that you know you don’t have the time or energy to be invested in. Rather than listening intently to understand the issue, you may only listen for an opportunity to end the conversation. In the end, you’ve got nothing to offer the person who came to you, and you both may feel rushed and more irritated than when the discussion began.
Instead, be honest upfront. Tell them that you desire to give them the undivided attention they deserve but that now is simply not the best time. Don’t get lost fishing for excuses, just be honest. If you’re too tired, say you’re too tired. If you’ve got something else that you’ve got to do and time is of the essence, say that. In my experience, people will appreciate you for being honest with them upfront, and they will appreciate the fact that you're not wasting their time by muddling through their issue.
#2 Make the Time
Hold on a second though! Before you walk away from that conversation, make sure that you commit to scheduling time with that person. There is nothing worse than telling somebody that you'll connect with them later only to forget to do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people a week or so after I’ve had to change the time on a conversation, only to realize that I completely forgot to reconnect with them. People who are forgotten immediately begin to think that you either don’t care about them and their issue, or that you aren’t the right person to confide in and will look elsewhere. Now, it can be a good thing for them if they are able to find someone else to help them with their issue, but not if that help from another person comes as a consequence of offense from your mishandling of their issue.
One of the things I do to ensure that I remember to make time for someone is ask them to drop me a quick text or an email. Upon receipt, I immediately put our scheduled date in my calendar and send them an invite. In the thick of my busyness, I may forget to set a time with someone if they catch me in the middle of something. An email or text will always prompt me to schedule that time.
#3 Spend The Time
Once you've committed to changing the time, and you’ve made the time to reconnect, the last thing you must do is spend the time. I think it’s missed on a lot of people that the reason we say “spend” time is because it costs us. Time is a precious commodity. When you commit to spending it, you should want to get and receive the most value possible from it.
I presented a keynote at a conference recently, and during the message I shared a nugget about the second law of establishing "Bulletproof Rapport;" Engagement. Simply stated, in order to engage with one thing, you must be willing to disengage with everything else. In economics, that’s referred to as opportunity cost. When you choose to spend time on one thing, that means that you are giving up the chance to spend time on something else. Make it count. When it’s time to be there for someone, be there. That time should be spent with them, free from distraction. Engage and listen well, give them the time they deserve.
And one last thing about spending time. Time is best measured in quality, not quantity. You don’t have to spend an hour talking to someone you’re not fully engaged with when a 15 minute intentional conversation will suffice.
Ryan Marshall Dunlap is a communication strategist who partners with leaders to help them to discover their own unique communication malfunctions that contribute to conflict, tension, and misunderstanding.