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The importance of ignoring people: what I learned from Bill Clinton

Twenty years ago Bill Clinton visited my workplace. This is me (see photo, bottom left), a bit younger and hairier than now, bottom left, snapped just before I got to shake the big man's hand.

Back then I worked at a think tank in Washington DC, just a stone’s throw from the White House. Clinton had only recently graduated to the status of ex-President and this was one of his first trips back to the capital, to give a talk to a capacity crowd of 600.

As someone who went on to become a speechwriter myself, there was a lot to admire about Clinton’s address. Speaking conversationally and without notes, he addressed the grave subject of crises in Africa with passion and authority, leavened with just the right amount of humility and humour.

What impressed me the most, though, was what happened before the speech. Around 50 employees were ushered into a meeting room “just in case” he decided to drop in and say hi on his way to the venue. He breezed in, trailing charisma, shaking hands, smiling and chatting freely as he moved to his reserved spot at the front. If there were any doubters or sceptics towards his charm that morning, there were surely none left by the end.

Charm aside, the standout moment for me was when Clinton stopped to speak with one or two people in the room. These were not passing greetings. He engaged these individuals in full conversation. For a moment, I felt it bordered on being inappropriate, even awkward. There were 50 of us in the room, all excited about the prospect of him saying a few words to our small group, and here he was making us all wait while he chit-chatted at length with one individual after another. He was ignoring us!

As I looked around the room, though, no one was offended in the slightest. Everyone was smiling, curious to know what was being said, craning their necks to get a glimpse of who these special individuals must be. I learned later that at least one of them was a complete stranger. Clinton had simply noticed his enthusiasm and latched on with eye and hand. For those few minutes, he gave the sense that he was completely unaware of everyone else in the room as he gave these individuals his full, undivided, sustained attention.

As it turned out, Clinton was practising what he was about to preach. My main memory of his talk proper was him recounting how people greeted each other in the part of Africa he’d just visited. When someone said, “Hello, how are you?” the standard response was not “I’m fine, how are you?” but (translated into English): “I see you.” In word and deed, Clinton knew how much a person longed to be seen.

Over subsequent years, as I’ve gone on to support politicians and CEOs, I’ve often thought back on this experience. I’ve witnessed some leaders, even charismatic ones perfectly at ease speaking to hundreds, struggle in one-to-one settings. I’ve seen others who would deign to say a few words, but who were visibly uncommitted and tracking the room in pursuit of someone else (usually more senior). I’ve even seen some walking so determinedly to their destination down the hall that they ended up ghosting young colleagues silently hoping for them to stop and say hello.

Split attention is broken communication. It sends the unmistakable signal that there’s something or someone more important to attend to. It makes listening difficult, conversation practically impossible. Communication only works when each side is truly committed in the moment. As Bill Clinton taught me, this means accepting the need to decidedly ignore all distractions in favour of one individual or group at a time. So next time someone tries to beckon you away from the person in front of you, be confident in your licence to ignore them. It’s not rude. It’s Presidential.

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