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​Paying Attention to Paying Attention

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Jun 29, 2021

When our audit department first got laptop computers (a long time ago in an insurance audit department far, far away), I had lots of reasons to instantly embrace them. One of the more mundane/unusual was because I wanted to use them to take notes. You might not think that would be a big deal. But it is important to use any tool to make things better, and boy did I need to make my notes better.

I have handwriting akin to an uncalibrated seismograph, an affliction with which I've suffered my entire life. In high school, my taking a typing class was not an option, it was a necessity. (And, yes, the class was literally called "Typing." And one of my great memories from it was my friends who said they didn't need to take typing because they "would have their secretaries do that." What can I say? It was the 1970s. And I still fondly think of them when I imagine them sitting at their computers hunting and pecking at 20 words per minute, wondering when the world passed them by. As usual, I digress.)

My handwriting was a detriment to the professionalism of my workpapers. But there was no option, so I struggled to write more slowly, more legibly, and more succinctly. (An accidental benefit to the whole thing.)

Laptops opened up a new world. I could type my notes.

And with that I realized I had a skill some others did not. I could type as I listened. I would sit down with an interviewee, open up the computer, and explain I would be taking notes on the computer. I would then begin the interview and, while maintaining appropriate eye contact, take relevant notes regarding what I was hearing. No interruption in the flow. No unusual interruptions as I documented a particularly juicy morsel. No scribbling and erasing and scratching out. Just a flow of documentation without ever looking at the keyboard.

And from this I learned something interesting. By focusing on what was said rather than documenting what was said — by letting my brain/fingers handle their roles almost unconsciously — I was able to better listen to what I was needing to hear.

How much do any of us listen to when we are interviewing someone. Most of us are aware of the concepts behind active listening — putting aside distractive thoughts, refraining from the pre-development of rebuttals, reflecting the answers, etc. But do we ever take it to the next level? Do we realize the impact that taking notes — of losing eye contact to document what has been said, even when it is typing the details in the computer — has on the flow of information and conversation? The sentence, "Could you hold on a minute while I get this down?" is a two-edged sword that, while showing the person that what they have to say is important, also interrupts whatever flow has been created. (Not to mention the fear that can be caused as the interviewee wonders what they said that was so important.)

In the book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg shares a story told by Rabbi Zalman Schachter. When he was in rabbinical school, the students were not allowed to take notes. They had to just listen, and when the lecture was done, they were expected to know it.

How well would it work for you if you were only allowed to listen and remember what was said in any interview? How much closer attention would you pay to the words, the meaning, and the underlying messages?

Of course we can't do this during an audit. We have to document what we hear and ensure it is accurate. But, when that interview is over, can you sit back and remember, even with the help of having just documented it, what was said? And, if you can't, what does that say about your listening skills? And the follow-up question: How accurate are those notes if you are so busy writing them down that you are not hearing what is being said?

Practice typing notes as you interview. See if you can get it all down without it seeming like you are taking notes. Practice the Rabbi's exercise in noncritical situations. See if, after a conversation, you can remember what was actually said.

But, whether you type without looking, or never take a note and memorize every word that is being said, or go ahead and ask the interviewee to stop while you take notes to ensure you are accurately documenting the intent of the conversation — no matter your method — there is only one thing you really need to do.


Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.