Look, a bird!

Let’s pay attention to attention.

“How’s it going with Project Vista?” Shawna asks enthusiastically as Rainer enters her office. Rainer was there to share some exciting news about their budding new collaboration:  Phantom. As they slide comfortably into a familiar conversation about the progress of Vista, he momentarily forgets about Phantom and the purpose of his visit. Fifteen minutes later, Shawna receives a phone call. Rainer gets up to leave and only then remembers the news he was going to share.  Ah well, maybe finding a major investor for Project Phantom wasn’t so important after all…

The short supply of attention

Our conscious mind is tiny compared to the vast amount of information available to us at any moment – our short-term memory can track several subjects and there is endless stimuli in our environment.

Pointing attention is like visiting a mansion of 100s of rooms: we can only be in one at a time and when in one room, the others are simply out of sight and out of mind.

Imagine you have an attention budget. Each day you can only use so much attention. How do you spend it?  Running between rooms?  Spending your time in the rooms of endless meetings, with no time to digest what was said or agreed in those meetings? What about the news room?  Or the video room? The game room? What about the drama room? Or room of complaints? 

Do you let text messages direct your attention? Or emails, or the endless chain of articles that lead to other articles? 

And how do you direct others’ attention?

In any conversation, we point other people’s attention. Each question will point to a subject or concern. Each share shapes a conversation. In our opening story, out of habit, Shawna forced the conversation to the Vista room, even though Rainer wanted to be in the Phantom room. He got caught there and invested a good-sized dose of attention, without the payoff he really wanted.

When and how are you pointing others’ attention? What kinds of questions do you ask?  What stories do you share? Is it worth their investment of attention?

Leaders, as you engage in conversations – do you influence the conversation towards possibilities, success and engagement or do you focus primarily on problems? A constant focus on problems instead of solutions might have your team miss some potential innovations.

Every question we ask, the topics we choose to talk about automatically selects the other person’s attention. It selects a room for them.

The art of the great question

This is why the art of questioning is so important. Yes, “how is it going with Project Vista?” is an open-ended question, but it specifically points attention. It was also asked out of habit rather than being intentional.

If Shawna had asked, “what’s up?” or “what’s on your mind?” that would have given Rainer the opportunity to continue with his own train of thought and the purpose of his visit.

Spend a bit of time thinking about how you use your own attention every day. Are you investing it wisely?

And consider, when do you use up others’ attention budget unnecessarily?