Attention – it’s the greatest gift of all

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It may sound trite, but your attention is the greatest gift you can offer anyone this Christmas and on every other day of the year too.

I would like to explore this idea of attention more fully. It’s something we take for granted really. But how we offer people our attention is a quality that can be developed and should be developed if we want to improve our world.

Let me join the dots…

When we listen to someone, we offer them our attention.

And often it is an attention that is somewhat distracted by thoughts about what you perceive as the issue, the solution, or may be thoughts about a similar incident you have experienced. Your attention, is often more on your thoughts than focussed on where the other person’s thoughts are going – even though you are listening to the other person.

But when we pay attention to someone in a way that follows the other person’s thinking, and just listen rather than interject with observations, distractions or questions – a curious thing happens. The person who is talking (and thinking out loud), notices that they will not be interrupted and begins to think more independently.

With this type of attention that notices the other more than ourselves, those being attended and listened to, feel the difference.

The response from the thinker/talker’s side is not to just ‘prattle on’, but to really begin to explore their own thinking more extensively and rigorously. The quality of the attention enables clearer thinking than can be done whilst one thinks alone in a more day dreaming type of fashion.

The attention influences the thinking, even though as the person giving the attention, you are apparently not ‘doing anything’. But you are – you are doing a great deal.

By quietly attending to the person with eye contact when appropriate,  and by really being curious and genuinely interested in what this person may think next, you are giving that person permission to think completely for themselves. You are giving permission to think without interruption. You are giving permission to think freely and independently.

How long is it that you have talked and thought without interruption?

How long is it that you have talked and thought freely and independently? Can you even remember the last time that occurred?

This type of attention and listening is at the heart of good coaching, but the difference is that the questions are withheld as long as possible too. My experimentation with this suggests that questions can be a form of interruption to the individual’s thinking too. So, we need to be carefulu abotu when and what questions we ask.

If we are to ask questions, then let them be questions that respect the person’s capacity to generate their own answers (and therefore not lead people in the direction of your solution)? And is it possible to ask questions that liberate more possibilities for the thinker to explore rather than close down options?  Often these are questions focus attention on the unconscious assumptions that the thinker is employing.

Let me illustrate with a practical example

I was listening to a manager fairly new to the ranks of senior management yesterday. The topic was ‘how can I be more effective in my work of leading and delivering real change?’ As I listened attentively, I noticed that the assumption being made was that relationships would of course be damaged in the process of delivering real change. The question I asked was “I wonder how change may occur and not damage relationships?” This then lead the manager off on another line of inquiry that liberated some new possibilities. I sat and listened. Holding myself back from interrupting with a ‘humorous quip’, or offering my ideas. My job is to listen curiously to what this person will think next… and to trust their capacity to work it out. They invariably do. And some would suggest that as they get used to thinking without interruption, they think more quickly and more creatively.

Nancy Kline, the author of the book More Time to Think, suggests that paying attention in this way, listening in this way “ignites genius”. Perhaps it is the source of new innovations as people also connect ideas together in new ways.

So, whether you are thinking about coaching your own staff at work, or engaging with your children and family over Christmas, I encourage you to consider the quality of your attention.

Offer your attention fully  – don’t be a “scrooge”!

Hold back and manage your own inclination to interrupt (which is human). And notice what happens as the person you are paying attention to, starts to learn to expect to be listened to, to be followed, to be attaended to, to have permission to think independently and without interruption.

Watch their confidence in their own thinking and capacities grow. Watch them flourish in your attention.