Monday, July 25, 2011

My Undivided Attention

I was in a meeting some weeks ago where the first real order of business was to decide something like rules of order. There were various subtopics, but one in particular has hung around in my brain. In discussing what constituted courtesy and respect in a meeting, it was suggested that we give speakers in particular and the meeting in general our “undivided attention.” That idea was fleshed out with statements of protocol concerning side conversations, electronic devices, and so forth. You get the idea…

The discussion (and especially the central phrase) bothered me; but I couldn’t decide why at the time. Recently it came to me: my attention is rarely undivided. Demanding my undivided attention for long periods seems unreasonable to me.

I began to get clarity on why the issue bothered me while watching a trailer for the Facebook movie. In the trailer the movie’s main character is in a college administration office with some older, well dressed men. He’s fiddling with a few things while they talk. One of them, irritated, asks if they have his undivided attention. He responds that they don’t, but that they have sufficient attention from him to proceed. While the movie scene is tense and the statement in the movie is laced with disrespect, the underlying idea seemed to reflect the normal human condition to me.

Very few things get my undivided attention for very long. I listen to TV and surf news sites on my laptop while my favorite shows get aired. I cook with the radio on, or with a laptop on the kitchen counter. I drive to work thinking about and planning the day that’s starting, while contemplating the scenery and listening to radio news. I mow the grass with an iPod in my pocket. Stray thoughts about the logistics of dinner, events on my calendar, my parents’ health, my wife’s birthday, etc. follow me up and down hallways at work and aisles in the grocery store. Then at the end of the day they often crawl into bed with me.

The approach in my meeting some weeks ago wasn’t unusual. We came up with a few rules and made it clear that people were expected to comply. And that idea, compliance, is also part of the problem in my view. We teach compliance and then wonder why we don’t see initiative and creativity. Compliance is the Dime Store substitute for responsibility. When I speak or present something to a group I see two types of people. Some are engaged with me; and if they choose to glance at their phones and type a couple of lines in reply to someone, I don’t mind. Others aren’t engaged with me; and since they’re not, what do I care if they mess with their phones while a talk. The only real issue is whether they’re disruptive.

Someone will say that it’s unprofessional. I’m not saying standards don’t exist. But the details that flesh out many people’s concept of professionalism are manufactured and artificial. And I suppose the bottom line is that I can pretend to focus with undivided attention on something if I must, but actually doing it is far more difficult – perhaps impossible.

I don’t think I’m that unusually. Doesn’t everyone have something like a lazy susan in the middle of their brain that slow spins and constantly serves ideas previously cooked up? I’ve always thought so…

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