“Attention!”: what really makes coaching work … or not! By Jeremy Ridge

Attention is what I think really makes the difference. It is the real fuel that drives life into all those engines of theories, models, and skills etc. Without giving the attention to the moment, and all its data, theories are powerless.

Real, healthy, normal people are their own person; they are too sophisticated to reduce to a generality – if you want this coaching thing to really work.

For me, organising my attention is the most powerful way of getting at what my practice in ‘coaching’ is wholly and totally concerned with.  It is also what I find most stimulating about Coaching – testing my attention, and exercising it, and getting it right.

But it is not easy to get attention to this theme of – attention, despite it being such a key element.

For example:

  • Have I got your attention, right now, for the next few mins, here!

  • How long will I have

  • How did I get it?

  • How do I find this out?

Every living moment is about it ….. So just live it, don’tfuss … just get on with it !

1         So how exactly is attention important?

As I experience it, generally:

  • Coaching at its best provides a quality of attention that enables a person to express and learn about themselves in a way that they don’t find easy to find anywhere else.

  • … getting people to fully engage with their own self, and to make as much as they want, and are able to make of it, in the circumstances

  • Coaching needs a quality of attention given to the Coachee that is moment by moment; and every moment – for quite a long period especially when you measure it as events every second. If you really are paying high attention …

I know the typical ways I give attention, in coaching – for example I work hard at learning the language, and even single words, the person I am with is using – the particular meanings, and experiences behind another persons expression that generate  meanings.

I am constantly exploring and playing back with people their meanings – appreciating how different their experiences and meaning making is from my own.

Especially as the only measure of giving attention is by the receiver’s response – not the theory and good intentions of the sender. @@You can’t say I am giving you attention, if it doesn’t work for you!@@

2         What is attention about, exactly … What are other ways it is given?

I have long since looked around elsewhere for what attention the term gets elsewhere – but it still seems limited.

I consider that the term Attention is a more valuable word than many similar concepts (see the definition, below ) because it carries a meaning of more focus to external signals and particular events, and which are not just what the coach is doing, but about the reactions they are receiving and how they are making sense of them.

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com   he English language is often rich with the nuances of meanings among different words, for the same sort of meaning.  But these definitions don’t really get my attention. They don’t give that clear direction for how to do it!


he English language is often rich with the nuances of meanings among different words, for the same sort of meaning.

But these definitions don’t really get my attention. They don’t give that clear direction for how to do it!

The meaning of language, and words, can be very coded – people are often cautious, and want to say what they think is the 'right' thing to say.  It may not be what they really believe. It is often their contrasting tone, or non verbal behaviour which indicates this. For example, when there is no tone that indicates some level of interest, or even excitement about saying what they really think.

Of course attention to yourself, and how you come across, is another vital component of marshalling how to give it to others. After all, coaches can sometimes appear as having some form of ‘authority' that the coachee has to obey.  It is so  important to work towards the other person and their real self.

Yet we are all experts in attention, in some parts of life – even driving a car is one important every day example for most people! So is it simple? Even driving a car can be quite testing.



3         The formal study of attention is still limited, too.

The earliest research and definition of attention, to attention, is generally recognised as stemming from when understanding people was becoming more of a learned (research based) work – such as the emergence of Psychology.

As early as 1890, William James, in his textbook The Principles of Psychology[1], remarked:

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German”

James further differentiated between ‘sensorial’ attention and ‘intellectual’ attention[2]. Sensorial attention is when attention is directed to objects of sense, stimuli that are physically present. Intellectual attention is attention directed to ideal or represented objects; stimuli that are not physically present.

James also distinguished between immediate or derived attention: attention to the present versus to something not physically present. According to James, attention has five major effects. Attention works to make us perceive, conceive, distinguish, remember, and shorten reactions time.

Even with these classic sub-categories, Psychology however, is still a very young – even an adolescent science – and it is forced to reduce its interest to what conventional scientific methods can measure.  So studies are drawn into where attention can best be measured – specifically where there are obvious patterns of behaviour. This makes some forms of behaviour more attractive, such as behaviours that are  fairly stuck, and often dysfunctional.

The complexity of human senses, and the meaning of any expression by another person has produced still limited formal research for every day coaching use – or to guide attention for ‘healthy' and normal people.

For example attention to ‘happiness'  is still more in the hands of marketing surveys, and government indexes, rather than formal Psychology research AND at the level of attention that makes those critical differences in coaching.

Positive Psychology (and many other concepts at a general level) has really only just started as a venture into this difficult realm. However, one thing seems sure… Happiness can vary for different people. And can vary at different times for any person. It is thus still difficult to measure meaningfully.

4         But what about attention to people … in Coaching

The detail involved still inhibits its full understanding. The data in any moment of a meeting is immense and Coaching is often research moment by moment, researching what sort of attention will work for the other person … how to relate …effectively, moment by moment.

Attention, like trust, is very easy to lose.. and can take a lot of effort to get right.

One of the best explanations I have found about what is involved is the various attempts to recognise the stages attention goes through is in such as DREYFUS[3] – an engineer working for the US airforce on developing important features of attention in tasks where particular performance was especially critical.

A summary[4] is presented, below:

  1. Novice: "rigid adherence to taught rules or plans" no exercise of "discretionary judgment"

  2. Advanced beginner: limited "situational perception"all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance

  3. Competent: "coping with crowdedness" (multiple activities, accumulation of information) some perception of actions in relation to goals deliberate planning formulates routines

  4. Proficient: holistic view of situation prioritizes importance of aspects "perceives deviations from the normal pattern"employs maxims for guidance, with meanings that adapt to the situation at hand

  5. Expert: transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims"intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding" has "vision of what is possible" uses "analytical approaches" in new situations or in case of problems.

This summary is a simplification of the reality of the stages of what Dreyfus reported is involved in building high levels of attention.

The framework was also referring to tasks generally, not necessarily Coaching. But it does seem to be a useful model for what is involved in the various ways attention can be built in coaching, and another discipline from which coaching can learn from.

It shows more clearly what is involved in building quality attention to complex realities. And real people have real, complex, diversity in the worlds they carry with them.

It also indicates how attention is still often seen as an invisible process – ‘tacit’ and ‘intuitive’ are the key terms.

I still hear a lot about Coaching that falls back into these sort of explanations for how things worked, among coaches talking about what exactly happened.

And after all that, intuition, and tacit, awareness are not always right – just because it was intuitive or tacit.

5         So how to exercise the ‘attention’  required for coaching

The most informing times, for me, are often conversations with colleagues – for example in Team Coaching – where the Coaching Team can share and clarify the detailed experiences of the ways they work differently with different people.

Similarly, seeing other Coaches in action often shows the particular ways they go about their ‘attention' to the task at hand. Quite often, I find, people with real skills in giving attention can be unaware, or just lost for being able to explain what they do, still.

Foremost, I want more than just the simple advice to ‘reflect’. There must be more to be given to the process than the word – reflect!

At the end of the day it’s all about ‘practice’ – where you are, yourself,  your best supervisor, mentor and/or coach in the way things work or not, for you.

We still have a long way to go to have the real insights, and conversations, about what we do in coaching!

So …

  • How do you study your ways of giving attention?

  • Do you know what works best for you?

  • Is it the same each time?

  • How it is sometimes different and why?

Eventually this is the sort of conversation I want to have with folks!


[1] James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt.

[2] http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/f/attention.htm#

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_model_of_skill_acquisition

[4] Dreyfus in http://bst.sagepub.com/content/24/3/188.abstract