I’m well used to being reminded that as a man I can’t multi-task. I’m not wholly in agreement but if you want to argue the toss then perhaps take a read of this and this. I’ll also see if I can’t find a friendly neuroscientist to give a more up to date view on brain function and multitasking. Anyway, this post is not about multitasking…
Feeling the Attention
If you’ve got kids you’ll know that as they get older, you have to pay a much deeper kind of attention to understand what is happening with them. It’s only by sitting with them and talking with our whole attention that the conversation reveals the depth of joys or travails they are experiencing. It’s developmental and affirming. When we don’t give that attention, not only do we lose the depth of dialogue, our kids are much less likely to raise things that are troubling them. It’s when the trouble starts.
In many respects, exactly the same is true in organisations. It’s only when we give people our full attention that we understand (& they understand) their issues & perspectives. We might call it engagement, or coaching, or a 1-to-1 meeting… whatever guise it takes, giving our full attention is supportive, developmental and affirming.
We can feel someone’s full attention when we have it. When we don’t we spot it straight away. There’s often an emotional feeling that comes with it. So it’s easy perhaps to see attention as something you give or do not give. We often talk in those terms don’t we?
I’m starting to see something else – a dilution in the conscious attention that we give at certain times…An Example
If you’re active on Twitter, you may well have been at a conference or other such event and have tweeted news, views, comments, etc. I’ve even sat in small groups at unconferences and had 2-3 people tweet during our group conversation. It can be a great way of sharing learning & perspectives.
As an example, here’s a Storify sharing the learning from a very engaging learning event with a group of around 20 people. You can see how over the space of around 4hrs, in all our enthusiasm, we managed to write & share quite a lot! Like the event, the technology and the sharing of learning was excellent. Nobody seemed to mind. Many outside the room seemed to appreciate the sharing.
However, each & every time one of us tweeted we diluted the attention to our immediate surroundings – we “checked out” for a moment. Our focus shifted from aural/verbal engagement inside the room to reading/writing broadcasts to an audience both inside & outside of the room.
As a conscious decision perhaps it is perfectly OK to do this. As an unconscious decision we can create unintended consequences from attention dilution.
This isn’t about Social Media
It’s easy to blame social media but it’s not a new phenomena is it…
- Ever been in meetings where people are using their Blackberry surreptitiously under the table?
- Ever struggled to have a conversation with someone who’s in the middle of doing something else?
- Ever tried to juggle a load of things to do without writing them down and putting them into order?
In a more diverse and connected world, I think more than ever we need to be conscious of when to give our attention, when to deliberately dilute our attention and when not to give our attention at all.
This requires us to understand our primary audience and give them our full attention for an appropriate amount of time. To pay attention to our responsibilities, to ourselves and to others. To understand and recognise when we are diluting our attention. To understand the impact of our attention giving.
Sometimes, diluting our attention might be a great way to create breadth of engagement. Other times we may be sitting on the sofa tweeting and realise that it’s presence that matters as our partner throws the cushion at our head… you’ve been warned!Post script Having written this piece I’ve just checked on Google and there’s already a related blog article on “Attention dilution disorder”. I have to say I don’t see Attention Dilution as a disorder, as though it’s something to be cured. Likewise, as much as I appreciate mindful practices, I don’t think we all need to meditate to prevent attention dilution. Each to their own…