Thursday, October 26, 2006

the quality of your attention

I recently read the latest book by one of the wisest men I have ever known: Prof. Ted Chamberlin. The book is Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization. If you, like me, grew up reading endless novels about beautiful horses, you will probably enjoy this wonderful conversation about the relationship between people and horses over millenia.

In the book, Ted comments (and I can't quote exactly because my copy is already out on loan!) that the best horse trainers use 'the quality of their attention' to get horses to do what they want. It is an intriguing concept, mostly because horses pay attention (and therefore notice attention) differently than people do. It is possible that it is the quality of the horse's attention that enables the trainer to pay attention in a way that results in behavioural change.

Or not. It is my work and my passion to pay attention to how people pay attention. At the moment, my biggest lab is a college classroom frequented by dozens of teens who are not often noticed (favourably) for the quality of their attention. It is true that they miss a lot. It is true that they are cheerfully or angrily oblivious more than is helpful for either them or me. And yet. . . they are suddenly attentive, alive, sensitive. They pick up more information than they realize and it is more frequently this access to information that confuses and frustrates them. The way to influence them is not to add more information; they have more information than they can conveniently organize already.

The quality of attention we offer is not always the quality of attention we get back from the world. It is not the only way to exert influence on people or situations. It requires a belief that we, like horses, are creatures of remarkable sensitivity and precision. A belief that we are capable of noticing the attention we receive, and responding to it directly. A belief that when we pay attention, we also draw attention. A belief that attention and action are part of the same continuum.

It's possible that you cannot understand those beliefs, much less be sure that you share them. It's possible that you are focused (or oblivious, depending on one's point of view) and do not notice things in your peripheral vision. Still, you could notice what you notice. You could notice different qualities in your attention. Then you could pay attention and wait, attentively, until you notice the results.

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