Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Choice of attention

In today’s world we are bombarded by visual, auditory, and sensate stimuli, alongside volumes of cognitive and emotional data with associated relational complexities. If we were to pay attention to everything, we would quickly become overwhelmed. So, how do we decide where to put our attention? How do we separate what is important and/or relevant from the background noise?

Indirectly, these questions have always been an aspect of my approach to more productive leadership conversations: if we can be clear what matters in terms of both purpose and relationships, and not be distracted by extraneous issues, we can make better choices in what we say and don’t say.

The issue has come into sharper focus following some meditation training, which has prompted me to reflect on ‘attention’ and how we relate to it. Are we deliberate in ‘placing’ and maintaining our attention, or do we follow it as it flits from one thing to another? Are we in charge of what attend to, or is external stimulus ‘driving the bus’? And, in our leadership conversations, are we following what another person is saying or is our mind leaping from one thing to another?

In the meditation training, we practised following our breath by placing our attention on it, not too ‘heavily’ and not too ‘lightly’. Even in a quiet and supportive setting, I found this simple task remarkably difficult. Like many people, my concentration (as a shorthand for placing and sustaining my attention) is good when I am engaged in things which interest me, especially if they are also important. I become absorbed, perhaps even entering a flow state. However, if I’m candid, I find it less easy to focus on someone else’s priorities. Whilst this is human nature to some extent, it can become significant if, for example, I discount a colleague’s legitimate concern or perspective because I see it as misplaced or unimportant

When, as a leader, have you experienced adverse consequences because you haven’t paid sufficient attention to someone else’s priorities? When have you missed an important detail because your attention has been somewhere ‘more interesting’?

As I reflect on my ineffectual attempts to rest my attention on my breath, I see that it’s easy to overlook the central importance of breathing when I am in good health and in a safe setting. Breathing is, superficially, pretty boring. It doesn’t naturally hold my attention. Since I know I’m not alone in this, I speculate that human beings may need to bring some diligence to remaining engaged in matters we know to be important, yet perceive as ‘mundane’.

Why is important to make active choices about where we place our attention? WH Auden wrote:

‘Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and to ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases a person is responsible for their choice and must accept the consequences.’

In our lives and work, we are inundated by emails, texts, twitter feeds, social media updates, voice mail, phone calls, skype – not to mention more traditional paperwork and meetings. In choosing what to attend to, we encounter two challenges:

• distinguishing between essential, important information and actions and unimportant ‘noise’ in the system, which may be (superficially) more alluring; and then…
• ensuring that our attention remains with what is vital, rather than flickering to whatever is more immediately attention-grabbing.

What will support us in navigating these challenges? Two lines of personal inquiry might bring some insight:

• am I clear about what is important, and why, as reference points for making choosing what to pay attention to?
• when the potential for distraction arises, what is my motivation when I follow that impulse, rather than remaining with what matters?

As leaders, it’s relatively easy to become clear about our purpose and priorities. However, if we don’t understand how and why we get distracted, it will be difficult to be mindful about which calls on our attention are relevant and which are not. The snag is that, in candidly examining why we follow attention-grabbing ‘noise’, we often find motives that make us squirm!

For example, a distraction might help me avoid doing something uncomfortable or unpleasant. It may be that a distraction is more pleasurable than my current focus, or I fear I will miss out if I ignore it. Or perhaps I respond to a tangential request for help or support because it makes me feel good.

When you look honestly, why do you allow yourself to be distracted? How will you support yourself to stay with what matters?

When we bring insights such as these to our practice in leadership conversations, we can begin to see why we attend to this and discount that. And, as we become more mindful of the whereabouts of our attention, we can also reflect on its quality: too loose and we can be easily distracted, too tight and we lose peripheral vision or perspective. What quality of attention is ‘just right’, allowing us to stay with an issue, yet remain aware of our environment and context?

As a leader, are you willing to look at your relationship to the precious, yet flighty, resource of your attention, and to explore the impact of this relationship in your conversations?

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