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Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Gift of Attention

I recently read an edited work called The Wisdom of Listening by Mark Brady (2003).  I somehow stumbled across the title as part of my personal research toward becoming a better listener (a process in which I have been engaged for several years).  Brady’s edited compilation included chapters written by academics, psychologists, health professionals, spiritual leaders, and even hospice workers.  It provided a comprehensive and rather eclectic view of the construct of listening.  In synthesizing this work against my previous learning on the topic of listening, I submit to you some interesting and consequential (for me, anyway) conclusions in that regard.
Listening is, perhaps, the most powerful item we possess in our toolbox of communications media.  To learn to listen fully and with complete presence provides for us the opportunity to truly discern not only the message(s) being delivered by others, but also the motivations, interests, and positions that underlie those messages.  If we can learn to listen from the heart, with a genuine sense of empathy, we stand an even better chance of fully understanding the “other.”  In effect, dynamic listening helps us to understand the essence of another person.
A skill that we can hone continually that supports powerful listening is that of being an effective questioner.  It is a rare but highly valued person who can be “lean” of commentary/advice and “fleshy” of significant questions. By significant questions I mean questions that have the real power to make a difference, to drive the thinking of all concerned to deeper levels of intrinsic and extrinsic understanding.  Being able to craft and skillfully deliver powerful questions generates emotional, cognitive, and reflective energy.  Those kinds of questions help tease out options, thus providing all parties with avenues for moving forward against a problem, for mending strained relationships, for taking penetrating looks inward at our own beliefs, assumptions, and motivations. Strong questioning helps shift our focus away from what is to what might be.
Finally, effective skills in both listening and questioning are perhaps best thought of cumulatively as a gift: the gift of our full attention.  They are simply vehicles through which we can focus our attention, without distraction, on the “other.”  If your experiences are similar to mine you can probably recall precious few people in your personal history who have been effective in attending fully to others.  Interestingly, the giving of our full attention to others cost us virtually nothing, and the benefits are immense. 
I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion that becoming a better listener was part of my personal growth plan.  I did not tell you why.  In chance conversation several years ago with a colleague, we were discussing the retirement of a professional friend of ours whom I will call Bill.  Within that exchange my colleague said, “You know, I have never known a better listener than Bill.”  At that moment, it became evident to me that few tributes could be made that would be more valued by me.  Being one who is skillful in giving the gift of attention is, in reality, a reflection of a state of mind and a condition of heart, that is far more important than any advice or counsel I could ever give.
Thanks to Mark Brady for challenging me further in the direction of being an effective giver of attention, fierce listener, and a powerful questioner.

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