The first time I learned about internal interference was when I took a Public Speaking class in college. That was not the first time I experienced internal interference, of course. I’d had the running, internal dialogue most of my life. But now, I had a name for it. And I learned it’s actually quite common, especially for situations like public speaking class because of the almost universal fear and panic many people feel when faced with this task.
Interference is any kind of barrier of distraction in the process of communication. This can be external or internal. External interference would be anything in the external environment, a loud radio, an airplane going overhead, or that awful high-pitched feedback you sometimes get when a microphone is too close to the speaker. This type of noise can be really distracting. It can make it really difficult to maintain your focus during a one-on-one conversation, much less a speech in front of a crowd. Interference can also be internal and much of the time this distracting buzz within your own mind is fueled by nervousness or fear surrounding what it is you are trying to communicate.
Internal interference is not always rooted in stress or fear and it can happen in other contexts outside of public speaking. If you’re having a casual conversation with a friend and they ask you a question, but you realize you can’t answer it because you’ve been distracted by your own internal dialogue, for instance. Or, if you are trying to listen to music, but your mind keeps coming back to some worry you had that day, consuming your thoughts and attention.
For someone that struggles with anxiety, internal interference can take the form of self-doubt, concerns about how you are being perceived, or desperate worry about when this uncomfortable situation will end. This type of interference can be extremely challenging to overcome, particularly if the situation has already moved you into a heightened state of anxiety.
Some people may be more susceptible to internal interference than others. It is common knowledge that personalities that are more introverted tend to experience a rich interior life. While personalities that are more extroverted experience their highest level of engagement externally, within the presence and interactions of others. It’s true that qualities like introversion and extroversion exist on a spectrum, so maybe you are not entirely one or other. But for someone who leans toward the introverted range, they may naturally spend more time with their internal thoughts than someone who is extroverted and thus could be more easily distracted by them.
But just knowing that such a thing as internal interference exists and that almost everyone suffers from it at some point, in some context, is helpful for learning to manage your own ability to focus despite distractions.
The key is to practice maintaining your focus. If your interference is stress or anxiety related, before you can practice focus, you must learn ways to ground yourself and calm yourself from the stress that has triggered your internal interference. Taking a deep breath, counting to ten, or repeating a personal mantra are all ways to help stop the cycle of adrenaline and bring your body and mind to a place calm enough where you can start to manage your focus.
I have found it helpful to manage my focus if I can bring my attention back to something outside of myself. If I am making a presentation, I try to focus on the information I want to convey. If I am contributing to a group discussion, I try to focus on being helpful. This helps to remove the focus from myself — my own thoughts and fears — and onto the task at hand. It brings me into the present moment, as opposed to future projections or concerns of how this will all be evaluated, by others or myself.
As with any skill, maintaining focus takes practice. Through practice, though uncomfortable as it may be, you grow in confidence in your ability to face challenges of this type. Meditation is a great technique for developing iron-clad focus. If you struggle with internal interference, try practicing extending your focus everyday, just a little bit, in any context you start to feel distracted from the task at hand.