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Cocktail Party effect

31 Oct 11
Daniel Smith
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With a sea of information around us, it’s important to learn to chunk and filter. We do this automatically of course – we learn to focus on the voice of the person in front of us, rather than listening to every sound from any direction. We learn to focus our vision on what is most relevant at that moment, and to shift that focus as is appropriate. And we learn to focus on the physiological sensations that are of most significance to the task at hand.

But haven’t you noticed that some people can pick up amazing details that other people miss?

In a very early NLP training John Grinder referred to an exercise to help enhance your abilities in this domain leverages the Cocktail Party Effect. Here is a quick description of some steps:

  1. Find yourself at a cocktail party, cafe, restaurant, on the subway or even alone in nature.
  2. Deliberately direct your attention to aspects of the sensory experience. Notice what happens when you attend to a conversation at the adjoining table. Or the next table over. Notice what happens when you focus right in front of you, then shift that focus to something that is happening across the room, then broaden your focus so you can notice an increasingly large panorama of the scene.
  3. Once you can notice the limits of your deliberate attention, start to stretch yourself. While carrying on a conversation with one person, match or mirror the body language of another person – or match some of the body language of one person, and some of the body language of another person. For instance, you might adopt the rhythm of the person in front of you, fold your legs like the person to your right and play with the napkin like the person to your left. Then take on the gross posture of someone else across the room. All while maintaining the conversation.

NLP has powerful skills, though it’s important to do the practice. Just learning the theory is great fun though if you don’t do the practice enough to habituate the skills (some call it getting it ‘in the muscle’), you risk being stuck having to think so hard about the technique that there’s no extra attentional capacity to allow for artistry.