Pay Attention!

Peter Osborn

1

February 2021

When you were at school, how many times were you told to pay attention?  Every time I ask students that question, eyes roll, calculators come out – the answer’s in the thousands. And when I then ask how many lessons they’ve had in how to pay attention, I always get the same answer. None.

Out in the world beyond education, anyone familiar with the business model of social media understands how important those questions are.

While we ourselves pay very little attention to attention, Silicon Valley has a very different approach. To the social media giants, our attention – what we think about from moment to moment – is gold dust to be mined, sifted and sold on to advertisers and influencers.

If you’re not yet familiar with how this works, the excellent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma will quickly remove the scales from your eyes.

As Tech Radar reports, 'The Social Dilemma offers a shocking insight into how social media apps compete for your attention, as well as revealing the tricks they pull to keep you boomeranging back for more… These features weren't created as a kindness to its audience – they're merely a means of keeping you addicted and keeping you swiping, forever force-fed a hardy diet of status updates and retweets and the fake news your Uncle Mike insists on sharing.'

Do I have your attention?

This revelation is hiding in plain sight. But it makes you wonder – if our attention is so precious to Silicon Valley, how come it isn’t so precious to us? It’s our attention, after all. So why don’t we value it as much as they do, or think a bit more carefully about how we invest it?

Consider for a second how much importance you typically place (really really) on paying attention to the person in front of you in normal, everyday conversations. Do you make sure to engage with whoever’s speaking to you – or does your mind tend to wander, leaving whoever’s talking to you stranded until you mentally re-engage?

Are you feeling a blush of guilt just thinking about it?

The fact is, most of us drift in and out of presence in conversations to some degree, and some are better at hiding it than others.  

But – if I still have your attention – consider this.

If someone’s speaking to you and you’re not paying attention to them, the most powerful tool you have for learning and relationship-building is disabled. They’re wasting their time, you’re wasting yours – and you’re learning nothing. They may not even bother speaking to you next time, so the quality of your relationship shrinks a little bit every time this happens.

This momentary little chink in the human relationship chain creates problems at every level of society.

There’s gold in them thar conversations

Joe Biden’s inauguration plea is for all Americans to unite and to listen to each other more. That’s all very nice but we’ve heard it all a million times before. Nothing changed in the past and very little – if anything – will change now unless we actually start paying attention to ... paying attention.

And then we must ‘seek to understand before seeking to be understood’ as Steven Covey puts it.

However, if that kind of ‘listening’ simply remains an aspiration we’ll get nowhere. But view it as part of a skillset that we can start developing today and things could start to change very quickly.

We lay all of this out in our skills-based book The Talking Revolution.

The first step is to be present and invest your attention in the person in front of you. Put aside external distractions, park your opinion, advice or whatever pearls of wisdom you think they need to hear – and simply try to understand what they’re saying.  

When you do that something miraculous happens. More miraculous than all the tech in Silicon Valley.

People on the receiving end of your undivided attention are more likely to calm down, open up, express themselves more freely, become more receptive – all kinds of good human things can start to happen. And do!

So next time somebody’s speaking to you and you feel that familiar pull of distraction, don’t go there. Head for the goldmine instead. Pay attention to the person in front of you.

The return on that investment could be far more valuable than any shares in Facebook.

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