Are you paying attention?
Updated: May 21, 2021
This post is part of a series of blog posts where I consider each component of the Thinking Environment individually, in order to better understand the relationship between the Thinking Environment and psychological safety. In this post, I’m concentrating on the component of Attention.
Attention: Listening without interruption and with interest in where the person will go next in their thinking.
We live in a world of interruption. A world that jostles at every turn for our attention. From pinging social media notifications and emails to attention grabbing adverts and headlines. So often we don’t get to finish what we are thinking or doing before something or someone interrupts us.
We interrupt each other in conversation, finishing each other’s thoughts, sometimes even sentences. We are programmed to put our own point forwards. Genuinely wanting to help, to move others towards the solutions that they can’t see for themselves (yet seem so blindingly obvious to us).
We’ve become programmed to listen in order to respond with our own views. All the time, forming our words in our heads as the other talks. Imagine doing that with music for a moment. When was the last time you tried to listen to one melody, while humming another? So why should it be any different when it comes to thoughts?
Most of us, for the majority of our lives, experience this kind of attention. We listen and are listened to, in order to reply, fix, solve, sympathise, compete, argue, even win in conversation with each other.
We can think of this way of being, as the world of Exchange Thinking. Each of us listening so that we can reply to the other. At its absolute best, this world (if we are truly listening to the other) can be generative and collaborative.
But all too often I give something less. As I listen, I start to think of how I might respond. Because I assume, a response is what you want from me. I begin to listen so that I can reply and direct your thinking. Thinking that my own ideas are JUST what you need to hear right now. It’s so easy to move into believing that our own thoughts and ideas are somehow better, more important, more valid, than what the person in front of us is thinking, right now. I do it at work, at home, all over the place.
And more often than not, I’ve been wrong!
So, what is the alternative?
Generative Attention - Igniting the thinking of those we are with
Generative Attention is something different. When we choose to listen with generative attention, rather than to formulate a reply, we choose to ignite the thinking of those we are with.
When we can quiet our own minds (and quiet our mouths!) the Thinking of those around us begins to take on a whole different quality.
If we then take that a step further and promise that we won’t interrupt, that truly frees others to Think, free of any threat of us trampling all over their ideas and thoughts.
And remember, the removal of threat makes us humans feel safe! The amygdala calms down and our prefrontal (thinking) brain can do its thing. Our brains begin to breathe.
This was really brought home to me when coaching recently. At so many points could have offered my perspective. I wanted to offer my perspective! I could have given a “shortcut” – a “try this”, or a “have you read that”. I could so easily have given in to my own curiosity and asked “tell me more about that”.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I listened. I asked again and again what more this client thought, felt, or wanted to say. I wondered how much value I was adding. And I trusted the mind in front of me to go exactly where it needed to go, when it needed to go there.
The breakthroughs were in no way affected by me. Yet my presence and attention mattered profoundly in their creation.
Where it went was extraordinary. The breakthroughs were in no way affected by me. Yet my presence and attention mattered profoundly in their creation. That is the paradox of listening with generative attention.
Committing to pay FULL and undivided attention to what the other is thinking is vulnerable though. Especially when you are personally or professionally invested in the outcome. To put yourself entirely in their hands (or more accurately their thoughts) and go with it to wherever they end up, rather than providing the wisdom of your own genius, takes courage.
But when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, it can be so powerful. When we promise that no matter what thoughts emerge, we will not interrupt. Not to correct, argue, direct, or even agree. Then, the resulting safety is so calming that it starts neurons firing in ways we could never have imagined!
As people begin to feel safer around us, their thinking noticeably improves. Our teams and clients (or Partners and children!) begin to trust us more with their thoughts, feelings, worries and ideas. Trusting that they can be courageous with their own thinking. Because whatever they think, we will not judge or interrupt them.
We will simply pay attention.
Click below for links to other blogs in this series