Attention: The Generator and the Gift

I’ve asked a lot of clients over the years what it is they most “get” from coaching. Naturally I’ll have asked them - before we start - what they’d like to “achieve”. But that’s slightly different from asking what they feel they get.

So when I ask when they are getting, generally they say “a chance to talk”, “new ideas”, “support”, a “sounding board”, “honest feedback”, “a different perspective”. Some have even said they “get advice” but that’s odd because I so rarely give it!

Rarely do they say they get “Attention”.

I think that’s because the other things are easier things to say. Perhaps there’s something concrete even about the intangibles of “new ideas”. Yes I may offer these sometimes. But most of all I “Attend”. Because I believe I am meeting a hope they don’t even know they have. To think for themselves, freely and without performing in some way. I believe that they want, more than anything in the world, to connect with someone who cares deeply about what they think. Someone who isn’t judging them or what they say in any way at all. Who wants to know what they can generate in their minds, for themselves.

They also want to trust me. And they won’t be able to do that if they don’t have my full Attention because then I just might be competing with them to be a better coach than I am wanting them to be – and knowing they can be – an accomplished thinker. 

Naturally I’m not going to impose my Attention on them just because I believe it’s what they want and need. I ask their permission. And they give it very, very freely once I make the offer and explain why I am offering it. That’s how I know they’ve been longing for it. And that’s where I believe I add the most value as a Coach. Because in that Attending, I will help them to create new thinking. And I think that this isn't confined to coaching; colleagues, managers and leaders can do the same for the people they work with. 

How do we normally behave when we're together? 

The photo above is a lovely demonstration of people being attentive to each other and enjoying being with each other. In reality it is probably a snapshot of a longer conversation where they weren't attentive all the time. They were probably doing what comes naturally - interrupting, exchanging, bantering, disagreeing, competing, and challenging.

When that happens the picture is pretty different. Think about what the picture might look like if, at work or at home, you’re interrupted, or asked a question at the wrong time, or when you're frowned at, or when people start fidgeting or looking at their phone instead of you. Or when you don't quite know why but you get little signals that they think their thinking is better, or that you’re boring, annoying, wrong, or mad. What happens to you and your thinking? 

In my own experience, when I am interrupted, silenced or silently told I am mad or bad, my thinking changes from where it might have gone to either maintaining or escaping from the relationship.

I might let them interrupt because I don’t want to hog the space. I might change the subject to make what I was saying more interesting, I might feel bad and pressurised to agree with them. I might move the focus onto them and ask what they think. Or I might just give up, maybe get angry, and either emotionally or physically walk away.

Whatever I do, the result is that neither of us will know what I was about to create in my mind. And if I do the same to you when you are talking and thinking with me we will never know what you were about to create.

What a missed opportunity! 

So what does this mean in particular for Leaders?

I think we offer a wonderful opportunity to our colleagues when we start and stay in a state of unknowing about what they think, and of not knowing where their thinking might go if we provide the space and Attention to let it unfold afresh, bold and brilliant.

A Thinking Environment® - 10 observed behaviours, including Generative Attention, that appear to consistently help people to generate the finest thinking - offers us a way of doing this well. As Nancy Kline, creator of The Thinking Environment says, “thinking for yourself is still a radical act”. Yet isn’t that what leaders want people to do? To go to new places, to have cutting edge thinking, growing and thriving in their own ability to get their heads around something, to be creative and robust in solving them, in making decisions, and more?

To do that people need our full, generative, Attention.

People need someone to be fascinated in what they are saying and where they might go next, to be at ease with their thinking and the unfolding of it. They need to know that they are appreciated as a human being, and that they and their thinking matters.

Naturally you may read this and people who can talk forever will come to your mind! So within a Thinking Environment we agree certain things such as Equality - we share time equally so no-one takes more than others. We listen so well that people become more succinct and focused. And if they do go on and on and on we can remind them, gently, that they have given us valuable thinking and now it's someone else's turn or our turn. It's not hard to stop someone talking, as long as we do it with grace and good intent. 

The Thinking Environment is a way of being, not of doing. Yes as leaders we can help with questions and even coaching tools but we need to be sure who those are for. Do they really need them at all or have we convinced ourselves they are useful? Sometimes when the moment is too awkward, or quiet, or when we're stuck for where to go next we look for them. Or when we think we have to have all the answers. Yet I have often found that the most useful thing I can do is not rescue me or the other person from the stuckness – they are perfectly able, in the care of a Thinking Environment, all wrapped up in my undivided, fascinated, easeful Attention, to unstick themselves. How liberating is that?                     

What about the Neuroscience?

I could talk now about brains, hormones and neuroscience. There is so much I could say and it's a very popular thing to talk about - and I have huge respect for those who are finding out so much about it that's useful.

But you can read all that for yourselves. Because what we’re doing in choosing to be Attentive Leaders transcends all of that. Carl Jung probably didn’t know just how right he was when he said “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed”. 

What we can do in leading is to connect with another human being to help them to see their own brilliance; surely this is the essence of humanity. And to do that, we need to give our full Attention on them and their thinking, not ours.

That is the Gift. 

© Linda Aspey 2016