Focused attention is our most precious resource, because 1) it's extremely taxing on our intellectual and emotional capabilities, 2) it can have a amazingly powerful effect on its object, and 3) it can't be subdivided. (We can pay continuous partial attention to multiple objects simultaneously, but we can truly focus on only one object at any given moment.)
Much of what I do as a coach and as an experiential educator at Stanford involves nothing more than devoting my full attention to another person. This is somewhat easier in a one-on-one coaching session with a client or student, and it's somewhat harder in a group setting, but under any circumstances it's a challenging task that's almost always worth the effort.
Why is it challenging? Because even when we're one-on-one, we're bombarded by sensory stimuli and an endless stream of emerging thoughts and emotions that constantly draw our focus inward. The running dialogue we maintain with ourselves exerts an almost irresistible pull on our attention, and it's impossible to ever completely shut it off. And in any group setting not only does the complexity of the data stream increase exponentially, but our awareness of being observed by others who are beyond the sphere of our attention heightens our self-consciousness and adds another layer to our self-talk.
Why is it worth the effort? Because we're so rarely the object of another person's truly focused attention, devoting our full attention to someone can be a novel experience for both of us that in and of itself stimulates something useful in the interaction. The other person feels seen, heard, recognized, validated, appreciated or challenged in ways that partial attention never generates. And as we momentarily quiet our inner voice, we suddenly become aware of so many things that we missed before--not only about the other person and our environment, but also about ourselves. The subtler, more elusive thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out by the louder currents can now be heard.
How do we do it? Three suggestions:
First, make the distinction between spending time with someone and spending attention on someone. We like to think that our time is precious, but compared to attention, time is cheap. And it's cheap because we can spend time without expending any real effort, and because continuous partial attention allows us to multi-task, flitting among low-intensity activities. So spending time with someone isn't the same thing as spending attention on them (and we're fooling ourselves if we think they won't be able to tell the difference.)
Second, respect how draining it can be to focus our attention for any length of time, and recognize our limits. Devoting our full attention to someone is hard work, and not the sort of work that can be accomplished through sheer force of will. Our reserves of attention are rapidly depleted, and that process accelerates when we're tired or stressed. Sometimes we just don't have it in us to focus our attention, and we have to learn to set boundaries and communicate them clearly and gracefully.
Third, practice. Focusing our attention, like any form of mental control, is a learnable skill. And while we can't simply force ourselves to pay attention for any sustained period, we can increase our stamina in order to pay attention for greater lengths of time and to shorten the recovery period between distractions. But note that many factors in contemporary life pull us in just the opposite direction. Entire industries have been developed to heighten our sense of distraction and keep us in a state of perpetual unrest, and we have to work actively to resist their pull.
Photo by Ed Yourdon. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons