During work hours we need most of our concentration, and it is while we are trying to focus that we’re more sensitive towards interruptions. So, it’s good to know that there are certain things/situations that bring us more out of focus than others.
One of the most annoying and frequent distraction is somebody near you starting a phone conversation. Even if, by all means, you’re trying to stay focused on the task at hand and you don’t want to assist to the conversation at all, there are scientific explanations why this is hard and almost impossible.
We humans are designed to protect ourselves from external dangers, and a spike in noise is always a possible approaching danger. Like a Marmot, we’re always vigilant and if we hear a sudden noise we look up to see if everything is ok or if we have to worry. In an “overheard” phone conversation situation, we behave the same way.
Our brain tries automatically to pick up the external stimuli and to make sense of what it is hearing, but since we only hear one side of the conversation, it’s a spike in noise that can’t be predicted. Our brain tries to recognize a pattern and to make a logical prediction of the next coming noise, but that is very difficult if half of the conversation is missing.
Let’s assume we are in the same room with person A which is on the phone with person B:
We don’t know what person B on the phone is saying and therefore we don’t know which behavior to expect from person A in the room, when to expect person A to talk and therefore when to expect to hear noise.
Every behavior and noise in such a conversation is unpredictable and therefore very stressful and distracting for our brain.
If, on the other hand, person A and B are both in the same room where we are, our brain can easily recognize a pattern. After person B asks a question we can expect person A to respond. By hearing both sides of the conversation it allows our brain to process the information and get less distracted by it.
These findings are the result of a research conducted by the Cornell University. In summary we can say that overhearing cell phone conversations reduce our cognitive performance and it is harming our work performance.
For this reason, the next time you need to take or make a call, save the productivity and sanity of your coworkers and employees and go outside or to a dedicated room to have your phone calls.