Bill Clinton knows how to win friends and influence people. The former president is a master of reinvention -- does anyone even remember that mini-scandal back in the mid-’90s? -- and the same talents that guided him into office have propelled him, more recently, into the stratosphere of Internet stardom. He’s celebrated for his humanitarian work . He selflessly shares vegan health tips. And he effortlessly doles out the kind of sage advice you might find stitched onto a pillow in a country cottage ("You don't have to give anybody your tomorrows").
So how did he get here, and what's his secret to success? It's simple: Clinton gives everyone he meets his full, undivided attention.
Paying attention may sound easy enough, but few of us apply our full focus when interacting with others. In our culture of distraction and multi-tasking -- where digital devices vie with actual flesh-and-blood humans for our attention -- the ability to completely engage with another person is an unusual trait. And when you consider that the average smartphone user checks his device every six and a half minutes, or that on average we give only one-third of our attention to the person we’re having a conversation with, Clinton's mastery of the art of paying attention seems even more impressive and rare.
Our own lack of attention may be part of what makes Clinton's presence even more remarkable. A 2010 Harvard study found that we spend 47 percent of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. But countless anecdotes about Clinton suggest that his legendary charisma stems from the undivided attention he gives to every person he meets.
Here are five things Bill Clinton has taught us about paying attention.
Attention is about empathy
During a 1992 presidential debate, Clinton and George H.W. Bush were asked how the national debt affected them personally -- and the way the two politicians answered provided a whole lot of insight into their personalities.
While Bush twisted the question to take the focus off himself, before muttering his way through an explanation of how price hikes "affect everyone," Clinton walked over to the woman who asked the question, looked her in the eye, and asked her how the debt affected her. He explained how, as the governor of Arkansas, he'd seen the people in his state suffer, and how much of an impact it had on him.
"In my state, when people lose their jobs, there's a good chance I'll know them by name," Clinton said.
Attention can make the difference between a strong and a weak communicator
As a politician, Clinton understood the difference between talking at people and talking to or with them. The Guardian's Alastair Campbell called Clinton "the greatest political communicator I ever saw." Paying attention was, and still is, his secret weapon -- look no further than the debate video above for evidence.
People can tell when you’re actually listening to them – and they love it
It seems simple and obvious, but Clinton built a career on doing what most politicians can’t or won’t do: connect with ordinary people, look them in the eye and listen to what they have to say. His ability to listen was instrumental in his ability to win people over.
"All my life I’ve been interested in other people’s stories," Clinton wrote in My Life. "I wanted to know them, understand them, feel them."
Eye contact matters
Psychology Today calls eye contact the "strongest form of nonverbal communication." And according to a University of Miami study, over 43 percent of the attention we focus on someone is devoted to their eyes.
Clinton's intense eye contact is a powerful display of his attention, and in some cases, it has elicited particularly strong reactions.
During a 1999 interview with David Letterman, actress Gillian Anderson (best known for her role as special agent Scully on "The X Files") shared her belief that the secret behind Clinton’s sex appeal was "lingering eye contact,” according to celebrity news site Metro UK.
“We all, mostly women, lined up. And when he gets to you, he takes your hand and makes eye contact," Anderson reportedly said. After he leaves and he moves on to the next person, he looks back at you and seals the deal. When I got home, I expected to have a message from him, and I didn’t. I bet women across America expect it too.”
You can improve your ability to pay attention
When it comes to paying attention, great practitioners aren’t born -- they’re made. And meditation is one way to improve your ability to engage and communicate with others. As Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it, “Training attention through meditation opens our eyes.”
Clinton has never spoken publicly about meditation, but according to the Times of India, he practices Buddhist meditation for good health and well-being.
Studies have linked meditation with improved concentration and focus, and an increased ability to avoid distractions. Just as exercise can improve the body, meditation and mindfulness can build the attention muscle through regular training. And as Bill Clinton has demonstrated, it can make you more effective in every aspect of your life.
[H/T The Blog of Tim Ferris.]