8Dec/140

Coaching and the Attention Challenge by Melinda Sinclair

Attention matters

“A primary task of leadership is to direct attention. Leaders tell us where to focus our energies. But leaders need, too, to manage their own attention. Leaders who do this effectively can soar, those who do not will stumble. The reason is simple. “Your focus,” Yoda reminds us, “is your reality.” Daniel Goleman

What is our most valuable resource – the key resource that allows us to be an effective leader, to succeed in business, and to enjoy life?

Some would make the case that it is time. Others would say energy or expertise and experience, or our network of relationships.

There is no doubt that all of these are very important. Yet they all require that we’ve mastered the deployment of a fundamental mental resource: Our attention.

The ability to direct and manage our attention is at the root of everything we achieve. It determines the quality of the decisions we make, the quality of our relationships, our level of performance and enjoyment in life.

Our effectiveness as a leader also depends crucially on how well we’ve mastered the art of focusing and directing attention. Leaders need to know when and where to direct their attention, why and for how long, and how intensely. As Daniel Goleman argues in his new book Focus. The hidden driver of excellence (2013), the difference between soaring and stumbling as a leader lies in lies in effective attention management.

Quite simply: Mastering the art of directing our attention is the key to success in leadership, in business, and in life.

 

The attention challenge

"At the psychological level, the most basic resource involved is attention. Attention is the brain's capacity to process information, and to direct action. It is a limited resource, because we cannot process more than a few bits of information at any single moment, and thus we can only be aware of a tiny fraction of what is going on inside us or around us."    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

And this is where we run into a challenge. Attention is a psychic resource - and for that reason limited. At any given time there are far more things that we could potentially pay attention to than we are able to. Hence, we are constantly noticing and knowing some aspects of our reality while being oblivious of others.

And we are all attention challenged in multiple ways. There is the distraction of being pulled in multiple directions by multiple, competing demands. There is the problem of focusing appropriately in the midst of vast streams of information coming at us at high speed. There is the spiraling down effect when our attention gets caught by bad news. There is the challenge of knowing when to focus in tightly and maybe risk missing important information – or when to focus wider and maybe risk getting lost in too much information and too much complexity.

Our attention challenges are exacerbated by the information rich, complex and fast changing world we live in. We’ve become “attention poor” amidst our information riches, to quote Herbert Simon.

In our world of constant change the heuristics from the past may not work at all, and it becomes extra important to have a valid current assessment of 'what is true now'. So we need to continually process new information in order to stay updated and grounded in our ever shifting reality. Add to this the complexity of the information and of the challenges we face, and it is no wonder that we often feel overwhelmed.

We can say that how we pay attention is "fateful" - for us as individuals and as organizations.
The problem is that very few of us - as individuals or organizations - are masters at the art of directing our attention.

 

Coaching as an attention structure

This brings us then to coaching. Coaching is often described as providing an accountability structure – a structure that supports clients to follow through on their commitments to themselves. It may be even more powerful to conceive of coaching as providing an attention structure – a structure to support clients in the mammoth task of effectively monitoring and managing the deployment of their attention.

The increasing focus on mindfulness practices is one expression of the awareness that attention mastery is key. However, in additional to classic mindfulness practices, there are several other ways that coaching could support leaders in dealing with their attention challenge. Here are just three related ideas.

  • Creating self-awareness of leaders is seen as an integral part of coaching. But shifting to the idea of coaching as providing attention support would mean focusing coaching not only on helping leaders become more of aware of the unique, personal content of their minds. It would also involve helping them develop a good basic understanding of key features of attention and how it works - for them and for those around them. This implies, of course, that we as coaches have a solid understanding of the relevant key features of attention.
  • Each client will have their own specific attention challenges and demands. A significant contribution of coaching is to help each client enhance their capability to monitor and manage their attention in ways that best serve their aspirations and their context. This goes beyond ensuring that clients understand the basics of attention. This involves actively collaborating with the client to help them develop customized attention monitoring and attention managing capability. Again, this requires us as coaches to engage in this mastery process ourselves.
  • As we swim in turbulent sea of information, we need to develop filters to help us sort, stream and process information. This is another concrete domain where coaches can support leaders to deal with the attention challenge. We can explore with leaders what filters and frames they are currently using and help them assess how well they are working. We can challenge them to either narrow or expand their filters. We can bring forward additional and frames for consideration, and work with our clients as they experiment with new filters and frames. And we can stay alert, along with them, when something totally new is emerging which requires new and fresh attention beyond the existing set of filters.

Every coaching conversation can be seen as essentially a mutual focusing of attention in ways that best serve the client. And we can conceive the process of coaching as supporting our clients to become more masterful at monitoring and managing their attention – their most vital mental resource. In our “attention challenged” world, this may be one of the best ways we can serve our clients.

 

Melinda Sinclair of PeopleDynamics Learning Group is a Chartered Business Coach™ practicing in Toronto, ON. Her work with leaders and teams focus on enhancing the conditions and skills required for high quality collaboration. In addition to her executive coaching and leadership development practice, she is also one of the lead faculty for the WABC Level 1 Accredited Business Coaching Advantage Program™.

www.peopledynamicslearning.com;

www.businesscoachingadvantage.com

 

 

 

 

 

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