ATTENTIVENESS: CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
IN A MEDIA AGE,
we assume that ...
In a sea of competing messages,
drawing attention to yourself
is the one essential.
IN EVERY AGE,
the truth is ...
Amid countless rival messages,
giving attention to others
in the one sure way to be heard.
Imagine a tuxedo-clad butler tip-toeing up to your seat along a heavy oak table. He lays before you a silver tray, its cover reflective as a mirror. “A gift from the master of the house,” he states with a crisp English accent.
What waits underneath? Some dainty dish or culinary delight? Or could it be something else—a piece of jewelry or priceless artifact? You raise the lid gingerly, heart quickening with anticipation.
The only thing to greet your eyes, however, is the bottom of the tray. Empty space. You cast a disappointed glance toward the butler.
“Air,” he explains smartly, “rich with oxygen.”
Such a gift, of course, elicits little thankfulness under normal circumstances. But, were that same offering somehow presented to a sailor trapped beneath the waves, or a snowboarder buried by an avalanche, it would be a gift beyond value, making the Hope Diamond a worthless trinket in comparison.Such is the world in which we live. For whether or not we notice, most everyone around us bears the slight bluish tint of anoxia, a shortage of air. What is the oxygen for which they are starved? It is attention—the eager, caring eyes, ears, and hearts without which no human soul can flourish.
Technology has vastly expanded our ability to gaze out at the world. CNN and the Discovery Channel, web cams and chat rooms provide endless opportunities to amass information, probe distant realms, and gather details of others’ lives. We prospect the globe with thoughtless finger flicks and button clicks.
But, as Randall Bush noted, this ease of learning and observation has not transformed us into “global villagers” nearly as much as some had predicted. Rather, modern people have largely become “global voyeurs,” peering in through others’ windows with fascination, but rarely gazing eye to eye in shared interest, connectedness, and understanding.1
The slow suffocation wrought by inattentiveness is terrible.
Mother Teresa, comparing the struggles of the poor in India to the very different sort of poverty common in rich nations, expressed, “As far as I’m concerned, the greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved. The greatest suffering is also having no one, forgetting what an intimate, truly human relationship is ...”
What we lack is captured in the words of novelist Taylor Caldwell: “The most desperate need of men today is not a new vaccine for any disease ... Man does not need to go to the moon or other solar systems. He does not require bigger and better bombs and missiles ... His real need, his most terrible need, is for someone to listen to him, not as a ‘patient,’ but as a human soul.”2 Have you noticed what happens when an attention-starved face is given the precious air it needs? Eyes spark. Hard faces soften. An irrepressible smile lightens over reddening lips, and a new eagerness buds like springtime.
Remarkably, even the least talented communicator, the slow-tongued, the impossibly shy, can elicit such a response in others. To do so, we need offer one thing only: the pure oxygen of sincere attentiveness.
* * * *
It was a Thursday afternoon, but the Sunday school classroom in the small urban church was full. Senator Tim Leslie’s owlish eyes smiled out at the roomful of sharply-dressed African-Americans.
This was not familiar territory. Senator Leslie’s home district was almost entirely white and rural. But several weeks before, as he pondered running for statewide office, his longtime friend Sam had delivered a challenge: “If you plan to represent the whole state as Lieutenant Governor, you’d better get to know the black community better.” Tim accepted, and Sam arranged the gathering to introduce his friend to a number of his fellow pastors.
Receiving a nod from Sam, Tim began, “I appreciate you all coming to meet today. I’ve been looking forward to telling you a bit about my thoughts on what’s right and what’s wrong with our state, and what it needs ...”
An hour later, Tim was all smiles as he rounded the room, shaking hands with each pastor. He made it to the parking lot ahead of Sam and stood reviewing the experience. Some great folks in there—and they seemed receptive to what I had to say. He glanced hopefully at Sam as they slid into their seats. “Well?”
“You really want to hear?”
Tim’s grin drooped, but he nodded. Sam shook his head. “I don’t know, Tim. They appreciated you showing up, but ... well, there wasn’t much beyond that. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” muttered Tim, deflated. They traveled several miles in silence before Tim turned back to Sam. “Could we give it one more try?”
A month later, Tim sat at the head of another Sunday school room gathering. “I appreciate you coming to meet today,” he began. “Sam helped set this up because I’d like to talk about our state and what it needs. So, we’re going to go around the room, starting here on my left, sharing our thoughts on three questions ...”
Nearly everyone had spoken, some extensively, when Sam nudged Tim and pointed to his watch. It was past time for their next meeting. “I haven’t spoken yet,” whispered Tim. Sam shrugged apologetically. “We’ve got to go.”
Sam thanked the group for gathering, and the two men began toward the door. Tim did not get three steps before finding himself surrounded. Pastor after pastor gripped him on the shoulders and pumped his hand. A woman in a broad red hat squeezed him in a bear hug. “This has been the best dialogue we’ve ever had!” she gushed. Voice after voice boomed the same thought.
Tim was nearly dizzy by the time he made it to the car. Sam grinned. “Now that went well.”
Tim shook his head, grinning as well. “I got an education in there. But was that a dialogue? I didn’t even speak.”
“You heard what they had to say. I could tell you were really listening. They could too. You listened with your heart. That’s not something these folks have seen much of—especially from Legislator types like you.”
Tim Leslie never became Lieutenant Governor. He lost the election by a narrow margin and returned to his post in the Legislature. But he says now that listening brought even better rewards. He gained lasting friendships, new perspective, and a deepened appreciation for a once-distant community.
Of course, it is not only urban pastors who desire to be heard, to be noticed, to be focused upon. From the glittering top of the social pyramid to its gritty basement, humans crave sincere attention.The results of a study of teenage prostitutes in San Francisco are recounted in the book Am I Making Myself Clear?4 When asked what they lacked at home that caused them to run away, the girls’ answers came down almost universally to three words: “Someone to listen.”
At the other end of the social spectrum, the story is much the same. As a senior legislative staff member in California’s Capitol recently confided, “Hardly anyone really listens around here. People act politely and nod at what you say, but they rarely really hear you. When someone does listen, it leaves a deep impression on me. I think to myself, ‘Now that is a person I want to be around.’”
Even those who appear hopelessly hardened are often driven by the same need, sometimes even moreso than the rest of us. The words of former President Jimmy Carter from a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone are telling. Speaking of his experiences negotiating with the cruel dictators of small nations, he expressed, “Quite often ... these little guys, who might be making atomic weapons or who might be guilty of some human rights violation ... are looking for someone to listen to their problems and help them communicate.”5
The need is universal. Desperately so.
* * * *
The throng poured through Jericho’s gates, rolling out from the city in a tumult of noise and dust. At its ever-shifting center walked Jesus, the rabbi from Galilee. Even those watching from a distance could tell that each man, woman, and child wanted to press nearer to him, hear his replies, see what he would do next. Despite the crush of the crowd, he kept remarkable composure, interacting with those fortunate enough to thrust themselves within earshot.
People on the fringes scrambled along, hoping to catch just a glimpse or a phrase. A blind man seated on the roadside was not helping matters, shouting something in the unintelligible croak of an alms-seeker. “Quiet!” a large stonemason grunted. “I didn’t leave the job site just to hear you barking.”
The crowd brushed blind Bartimaeus by, offering only a mouthful of dust for his trouble. “Jesus, son of David,” he called one last time.
“Don’t waste your voice,” someone shot back.
Suddenly, a hush rippled through the crowd. Jesus had stopped. He was saying something. What? Two young men began clearing a path out from the middle, back toward Bartimaeus. The beggar’s blanched eyeballs turned skyward, his body trembling as he heard his name. “Bartimaeus, cheer up, Jesus is calling for you!” A half-dozen eager hands lifted him and tugged him forward, into the heart of the whispering crowd.
The hands fell away, and Bartimaeus stopped. Silence. Then a voice. “What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimaeus’ mind felt like it was tumbling down a hillside. He’s asking a question? To me? How did he hear me in the middle of all this? His dusty mouth seemed to be full of wool. From the midst of the crowd, Jesus had somehow noticed him, a blind beggar, calling from the margins; now Jesus stood here next to him waiting, listening. Does this great man really want me to answer, to hear from me? The expectant silence made the answer clear.
It took a moment for Bartimaeus to realize that the next voice he heard was his own, “I ... I want to see ...”
* * * *
Attentiveness may seem to be a passive quality. It is not. The sort Jesus practiced, at least, went far beyond the inert “receptivity” that absorbs only sounds and sights forceful enough to intrude upon the senses. It was active, watching and seeking, like the straining neck and twitching nostrils of a gazelle in lion country, like the sweeping eye of a searchlight.
This was more than a “skill.” Jesus’ attentiveness was a discipline, an intentional concentrating of the senses.
Most often, he turned this focus toward people or details others overlooked—the tossed-out, unlovely, disease-ridden, and rejected. He approached the seemingly irrelevant and expendable with a thoroughness that bestowed deep value and dignity. He emphasized the small and insignificant.
As much as any modern man, Jesus was immersed in the sort of dizzying activity that tends to numb us to life’s subtle shades and drown out all but the loudest voices. Yet, somehow, in the grandness of his mission and purpose ... in all the demands upon his time ... in the seriousness of his words ... in the size of his following ... Jesus never overlooked the details of life.
In the midst of it all, he attuned his senses to the work of attentiveness. A diminutive tax collector up in a tree, a housewife drawing water from a well, lepers and social outcasts, mothers seeking blessings on their children—all caught Jesus’ notice and received his unreserved attention.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, Jesus consistently revealed attentiveness in its highest form: empathy, an attentiveness of the heart.
Simply opening our eyes and ears to what is around us can be challenging enough. It is far more difficult to open our hearts to the deeper emotions and worries of others.
But such was Jesus’ attentiveness. Time and again, the disciples noted Jesus’ reaction to the rag-tag crowds and the hapless individuals who filled them. Writing about it years later, they consistently used the same word to describe it: “compassion”—not merely feeling sorry for, but feeling or even suffering with, a “co-passion.”
At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus displayed this quality with special poignancy. Although apparently having every intent of ending the cause of everyone’s sadness, Jesus opened his heart to the ache of the moment and the anguish of those around him. There was no hint of distant, above-the-fray scrutiny. It was the full attentiveness of compassion, suffering with. And Jesus wept.
From first to last, attentiveness served as a wellspring of Jesus’ communication. Always active. Always thorough. Listening and noticing, picking out and discerning, observing and questioning, seeking and even feeling.
* * * *
A story is told of a woman who was taken to dinner by the great British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Not long after, the same lady dined with Gladstone’s equally famous political nemesis, Benjamin Disraeli. Asked later about the impression the two prominent figures had made upon her, she explained, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”
What made the difference? We all know the answer. Attentiveness stirs us like nothing else in the world. It touches our deep longing for connectedness and intimacy, our ache to feel valued and to know that we are understood.
After the flashbulbs have exhausted themselves and the confetti is swept into a tidy pile, most people care little if you have built grand towers, scripted best sellers, or steered a Fortune 500 corporation. They want to know one thing: “Do you care about me?”
We are insecure, all of us, from the deaf janitor to the rock-jawed football coach. Frequently, the brighter a person’s veneer of success and confidence, the more ravenous his hunger for affirmation. Pull back the orange peel just a bit, and you will find that each woman and man, no matter how polished or praised, is deep down a little girl longing to know that she is beautiful or worthy, or a little boy eager to hear that he is handsome or capable.
Of course, this need can be manipulated. Frequently it is. Feigned attentiveness can be an assassin’s dagger in the hands of ambitious ladder-climbers, sexual predators, and other charlatans. Sincere attentiveness is another path altogether. It conveys genuine respect, concern, and value more than any other communication decision. When a person receives another’s whole-hearted attention, suddenly they matter; they have worth. In a very real sense, at that moment, they feel they have been brought into existence.
That is why people respond to attentiveness almost as if to magic. It is a kiss that really does transform frogs into princes and princesses—changing behavior, opening hearts, and inspiring loyalty.
Attentiveness carries this potency wherever you go. Workers at the City Team Homeless Ministry in San Francisco, California, seek to meet the homeless’ physical needs as best they can. But at the heart of their work, they report, is in striving to give their ragged, bleary-eyed patrons the personal notice they so rarely receive. Volunteers even wash the feet of the homeless, listening carefully to their stories, doing all they can to understand and even share the emotions of the human being before them. Admittedly, the homeless often offer little in return, but the sincere personal interest rarely fails to have an impact.
* * * *
The benefits of attentiveness are not limited to those who receive the attention. The person giving it may gather even greater rewards. In the words of an old Turkish proverb, “To speak is to sow, to listen is to reap.”
As communicators, attentiveness sharpens our effectiveness by giving us the lay of the land.
The best communication is never a “magic bullet”—a formula or string of words that, if properly launched, consistently delivers predictable results. The quest to express ideas or build rapport is much more like the wooing of a coy lover or an extended campaign to take a city. Such efforts demand continual responsiveness to the unique, evolving particulars of the situation and the people involved.
History’s ash heap is littered with charismatic leaders who lacked attentiveness. There are monarchs like King Louis XIV of France or Russia’s Tsar Alexander, who lost any connection with the experience of the people under their rule. There are generals, like Confederate George S. Pickett, who took little note of changing details on the field of battle and charged into ruin. There are generally decent managers who failed to observe low morale in their offices, and caring mothers who remained oblivious to the frustration caused by their smothering protectiveness.
Attentiveness is what enables us to discern which words and actions will best fit the uniqueness of each situation. Is this moonlit moment the right time to profess your love, or are breath mints necessary? Should you continue in your presentation, or perhaps give the audiences a stand-and-stretch break?
Attentiveness makes our communication living and responsive, capable of situation-specific creativity. If we are willing to act upon what we discover, attentiveness leads to well-wooed lovers and successful campaigns.
Attentiveness enriches our experience of the broader world as well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”6
Whatever the situation, a posture of attentiveness makes experiences fuller and more meaningful. It stirs a childlike delight in the marvels of creation, from the amazing nano-technology in every living cell to the dizzying expanse of galaxies. It also offers insight into the nature of humankind—watching a love-struck couple in a coffee shop, or catching what is being said by a child’s eyes.
To those who cultivate attentiveness, every interaction is an opportunity to learn. At the dull party, thoughtful questions turn the shy plumber into a trove of information about sinks and drains; at the less-than-inspiring company training day, one can still observe what it is that makes the better presentations better.
This nonstop inflow of knowledge, appreciation, and insight guarantees that the attentive person never grows stagnant. It continually washes away moldy assumptions and dried-out truisms, replacing them with the airy and original.
For the artist, this enriching flow is lifeblood.
The greatness of the masters—Van Gogh, Bach, Da Vinci, Tolstoy, Frost—came largely from their deep attentiveness. Life, people, and creation fascinated them, and their senses remained continually open and alert.
Don Postema, who served as chaplain at the University of Michigan for thirty-four years, expressed the thought well. To be truly great as creators and communicators, he observed, artists “need this kind of awareness to write, or paint, or draw with any authenticity. They need to pay attention ... They must take time to penetrate below the surface of things, to rediscover the world with an eye of love, and to ‘see’ into reality. Being an artist involves ‘grasping life in its depth,’ as the sensitive artist Vincent Van Gogh once wrote.”8
An artist of communication—and each of us can be one—must do the same. Supplied in this way by the wellspring of attentiveness, our words never cease to reverberate with creativity, freshness, and life.
* * * *
Even after we have committed ourselves to attentiveness, beauty, power, speed, and noise still tug viciously at our concentration. Urgency and the worries of life insist upon it. Amid even the most enjoyable conversations, self-interested thoughts still chatter on within our heads, sucking our attention selfishly inward: How will this affect my plans? What will I do when this conversation is over ... next week ... for my vacation? It is almost inevitable that individuals who inhabit the margins, the quiet cries of human hearts, and all that is delicate, subtle, or less-than-stunning will end up unnoticed, calling feebly from the dusty roadside.
Merely desiring attentiveness will not be enough. We must cultivate it, as a young musician develops her ear for subtle notes and melodies. “To listen is an effort,” stated composer Igor Stravinsky, “... just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”9
But how? How do we truly listen and see in this way, as Jesus did, perceiving what others do not? The primary and most crucial aspect is deceptively simple: We must first seek to be silent.
Silence, explained philosopher Josef Pieper, “is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”10 If we desire to listen to whispers, to discern those subtle things that do not simply barge in upon our senses, we must be willing to bite down with stern resolve upon our tongue.
This demands patience and self-control. Journalist Fran Lebowitz noted, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”11 In an era that measures time in nanoseconds, waiting can be painful. But as we do quietly wait, our senses begin to open and notice. Meanwhile, the invitation presented by our attentive silence draws others to open themselves to us.
The most potent kind of silence, however, requires more than just not talking. We must have an inner disposition of stillness as well. When our mind is overwhelmed with activity or buzzing with internal noise—even if we are outwardly silent—we tend to notice only things that promise immediate satisfaction of our own self-focused interests. In contrast, inward silence allows a sensitivity to the subtle. We begin to hear not only words, but also what is being said between them.
This inner quietness, as we will explore further in Chapter 6, is formed especially in solitude, reflection, and prayer. In such times, we begin to still the inner noise that makes full attentiveness almost impossible. This second silence comes slowly, and with effort. Annie Dillard described her own struggle to “gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle.”12
The reward, however, is worth the labor.
Silence, properly cultivated, prepares us for an attentiveness that goes beyond merely noticing details. It starts us on a path of perceptivity to the deeper, often-hidden realities of our friends, children, audiences, and even life itself. The result, as Don Postema observed, is often “a deep insight into reality, a capacity to see beneath the surface of nature and people, an awareness that uncovers for us a spiritual vitality in our world, in ourselves—and points us toward God.”13
* * * *
Given how much most people long to express themselves, silence is often all that is needed to draw a person out and build meaningful connection. As already noted, though, Jesus didn’t stop here. His attentiveness was not passive, like an unmoving satellite dish that absorbs only the signals strong enough to drown out the others. His attention was deliberate, vigorous, and discerning.
A number of disciplines can help us grow in this character trait, building from silence into the active attentiveness Jesus modeled.
1. Make question-asking an art. Jesus often anchored his communication in thoughtful questions. Prior to interactions, think through questions you can ask to dig beneath trite exchanges and into meaningful discussion. Try viewing yourself like a reporter, seeking to draw out significant thoughts and experiences from others.
2. Sacrifice distractions. As much as we imagine no one notices, multi-tasking always diminishes attentiveness. Shut off cell phones and the background TV, place the newspaper on the ground, and turn away from the computer while on the phone. Removing distractions enhances our perceptivity. Equally important, by making these “sacrifices,” we show we’re serious about listening.
3. Involve the whole body. Physical stance can have a surprising impact on interactions. Consider how kneeling for prayer, although not necessary, can orient us toward humility and receptiveness. In much the same way, posture can prepare us for attentiveness: Force your eyes not to rove; set shoulders square toward the other; avoid crossing your arms. These physical actions express interest and help us remain focused and engaged.
4. Confirm your perceptions. Even the most discerning observer can misconstrue what she hears or sees. Simple inquiries—“You look frustrated. Are you down?”—can help clarify our perceptions. Communication experts call this practice “active listening.” Asking for confirmation (“Do you mean ...?”) or repeating back a form of what you think you heard (“So you’re telling me ...?”) ensures we understand what is being said and also conveys to others that we care about they are saying.
5. Cultivate attentiveness by taking special note of people on the margins. Jesus directed his attentiveness especially toward the “invisible” men and women of his day: the poor, ostracized, and chronically ill. Try giving special attention to people others overlook—yard workers, janitors, the disabled, or homeless. Beyond merely developing our own attentiveness, this choice will give affirmation and “oxygen” to people who need it greatly.
6. Learn to see. This does not just mean “learn how to see better,” but rather, “gain knowledge that will enable you to see more.” A boy who has no knowledge of forests will likely “see” nothing on a mountainside except “a bunch of trees.” With a little study, though, suddenly every pine, cedar, and dogwood grows distinct. Now, he can’t help but see them. The same is true as we learn the family, culture, or life story of an individual. Whether gained through books, classes, or conversations, new learning increases our ability to see.
7. Express what you observe. Annie Dillard writes, “Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.” The practice of articulating things we’ve noticed—thanking a waitress’ manager for her effort, mentioning a talent you perceive in a friend, or remarking on the smile of a supermarket clerk—makes this things more real for us, and also gives gifts to others.
If practiced, these disciplines enable us to give ourselves wholly to each situation and person we encounter.
Initially, a sense of effort will be continual. Like pulling back on the chain of an overeager puppy, we must repeatedly draw our attention back into the moment, dragging our focus away from everything else that tugs at our thoughts—and on to the person immediately before us.
Over time, however, disciplines become habits, and habits become character. Attentiveness will no longer be a straining decision, but second nature. Perhaps for the first time, we can begin to dwell in the present.
“I believe in being fully present,” Morrie said in Tuesdays with Morrie.14 Life and relationships had grown clearer to the dying professor, and he explained to his younger friend gently, “That means you should be with the person you’re with. When I am talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I am not thinking of what’s coming up this Friday ... I am talking to you. I am thinking about you.”
As difficult as it is to root ourselves in the present, it is the only place we can attend to others ... or, for that matter, really live at all. In the words of missionary martyr Jim Elliot, “Wherever you are, be all there.”15
* * * *
There was no question that the matter was urgent. The daughter of an influential man lay on death’s door. With the desperation only a father could know, he had begged Jesus to come—quickly. A large crowd pressed close as the two men set off together at a rapid clip. No one wanted to miss what would happen next.
They had traveled some distance when Jesus came to a sudden stop, bringing the whole procession to an off-balance halt.
“Who touched me?” he asked, gazing into the crowd. Eyebrows rose, and onlookers chuckled. Amid this throng, anyone could have touched him. But Jesus searched on, face after face, seeking a telltale gesture or trace of emotion.
From out of the crowd, a woman tumbled to the ground in front of him. Her tear-streaked face appeared weary, as old sandstone. “It was me,” she choked, “I grasped your robe—only for a moment.”
The riddle was solved. People shrugged and began moving forward, anxious to get to the more pressing matter ahead. What more could she want? As witnesses later reported, just touching the edge of Jesus’ robe had apparently produced the healing the woman believed she’d come for. But Jesus knew better. He held up his hand, stilling the crowd and inviting the woman to speak.
Hesitant, she searched his face. Sensing the invitation was sincere, she began, pouring out her life’s story in detail for perhaps the first time: twelve long years of chronic bleeding, swindlers whose costly treatments only increased the pain, medical bills sucking away the last of her resources, the burning loneliness of social rejection ...
Her words flowed freely until there were no more. She gazed at Jesus, her eyes moist and unburdened. Jesus smiled. “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” Only now would he return to the urgent matter at hand.
Attentiveness, more often than not, is most needed when it is least convenient.
Facing interruption and intrusion, we discover where our commitments lie. The costs can be high. As a busy lawyer expressed, “I frequently find my inattentiveness due in large part to wanting to stay on schedule. Or I’m on the clock and want to keep my time productive. So I avoid or cut off personal conversations with clients and staff. Attentiveness requires sacrificing your goals, agenda, schedule, deadlines, and efficiency. It might mean your whole afternoon gets thrown off when you encounter someone starved for attention.”
Of course, even an attentive person must sometimes draw boundaries or bring a rambling conversation to an end. Jesus’ choices, however, show that he placed an almost disturbing premium on attentiveness. He apparently believed it was worth a delay in his mission to a dying child—simply to provide the oxygen of attentiveness to a woman others had discarded.
Following Jesus’ pattern in this is subversive. To place such value on attention-giving is an act of treason against values and habits that stand as pillars of our culture. Attentiveness upends the sacrosanct priority normally given to efficiency, accomplishment, self-expression, and seeing days go just-as-planned.
If we choose this path, some of the things we would prefer to hold tightly may indeed be lost. The person before us, however, will receive what they so desperately need: our full attention—ears and eyes, heart and soul.
* * * *
As a final note, a word of warning. Attentiveness is a potent commodity. It is pure oxygen in a room choked with carbon dioxide, fresh air to the suffocating. As such, attentiveness can dramatically increase our capacity for influence. Realizing this, we may be tempted to use attentiveness falsely, to exert it as a tool for our own self-absorbed ends.
But true attentiveness cannot be faked. We can, of course, learn techniques that make us appear attentive: managing our facial expressions, keeping eye contact, mirroring the other person’s body language. These practices are not wrong in themselves, but if they spring from nothing more than selfishness or ambition, people will eventually notice. When they do, all we hoped to accomplish through our carefully packaged “attentiveness” will unravel like a cheap stuffed animal won at the carnival.
Real attentiveness can have but one source: a sincere concern for those with whom we communicate.
If anything else is motivating us, we will likely abandon attentiveness just when it is most needed. Only a genuine care for others enables us to value hearing more than being heard, to extend our focus beyond our own petty concerns, to prize the opportunity to know a person’s heart and open ourselves to experiencing what they feel.
Mere technique will never take us this far. Attentiveness must flow sincerely from the heart. When it does, new life always follows.
TAKE IT WITH YOU ...
Know that what will determine the success of your communication, far more than whether others notice and hear you, is whether you truly notice and hear others.
Silence is the first step, “the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.” As an exercise, try to go through a conversation speaking only when necessary, not bringing up any of your own ideas.
Build on silence by training yourself for active attentiveness. This effort will bring immediate results, but is honed over a lifetime. Choose one or two of the seven disciplines mentioned in the chapter to engage this week.
Most of us imagine ourselves to be good listeners. Question yourself. Do others come out of interactions with you feeling that you really sought to hear them and draw them out?
Remember: You have a desperately needed gift to offer through attentiveness. Many are gasping for it. Even to the confident and secure, it will be a prized blessing.