When I was a kid I became fascinated with magic. As I attempted to learn trick after trick, what became clear to me was that the primary skill of the magician wasn’t so much manual dexterity as it was the ability to draw the audience’s attention to something very specific. One magician called it “the manipulation of interest”. I think of it as misdirection and as it turns out there is a really business point to it as well.
What a magician is trying to do is one of two things: either to get you to look away from what he is really doing for a split second or to reframe your perception so that you focus on a different reality, thinking that something has a lot to do with what’s going on when in fact it has nothing to do with it.
We see this in business all the time. Sometimes it’s benign, as when we’re distracted by a phone buzzing during a meeting. Sometimes it’s not so benign, as when the fine print of a deal is overshadowed by a blaring headline and attention-grabbing photo. I’ve been in meetings in which someone was completely unprepared for the topic of the meeting but managed to get the group distracted onto a side issue and he was never found out. You’ve probably witnessed something similar.
We can’t let distractions draw our attention away from what’s really going on. We can’t look at the obvious while the real business is going on elsewhere. More importantly, we can’t let others draw our attention away from something they’re doing that might have an impact on our business. We can’t let a nice suit distract us into thinking someone is successful – look at their track record. We can’t let someone’s ridiculous initial offer draw us away from our negotiating plan – maybe they’re trying to distract us through the misdirection of anger. We can’t let someone tell a lie as a distraction without correcting it but that also means we need to have facts at hand to avoid the misdirection.
Some folks are masters of controlling how others feel about and deal with them by controlling others’ focus. Don’t fall for it.