I recently heard an interview of Matt Richtel by Terry Gross (NPR Fresh Air) discussing our brains in the digital age. Richtel is an award-winning New York Times writer and he has written about how we deal with information in today's world of smart phones, iPad's, and so on. The concept that intrigued me as a mediator was his discussion and explanation concerning “multitasking.” According to the science, Richtel explained that in reality our brain can only process one item, one piece of information at a time. Thus, when we are “multitasking,” we are in reality switching from one activity to another at a very high rate of speed. And, Richtel notes that when we switch back and forth quickly, we do not often perform both tasks at a high level. Instead, both tasks are reduced in excellence because of the quick switching.
As a mediator I am often listening to one participant in mediation and also considering what to say or do next. Sometimes when I'm listening to one participant I also want to check/gauge the reaction of other participants and I will glance across the room with this in mind. Additionally, in the middle of mediation, I often consider where we are at a structural stage level. Are we still acquiring information or are we seeking to generate alternatives for resolution? Are we in the problem space of the past or the solution space focused on the future?
If you had asked me about these mediator activities before hearing the Richtel interview I would've said that I was effectively “multitasking.” Now, however, it appears that I am switching back and forth between various activities rather than holding both or all of them in my brain at once. Having this knowledge, that our brain can only process one item at a time, suggests that I should pay more attention to each item and do each item well and then move on to the next. This might mean slowing down a bit during the mediation process at times when my full attention on one participant is necessary. Then, once I've listened deeply, then I can take a moment to consider next steps rather than thinking about next steps while trying to listen well.