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The Forgotten First Step for Connecting

While happiness books are all the rage, none begin by showing us the inescapable first step to connecting with others.   Yet having social ties is the single best predictor of a longer, healthier, more satisfying life. 

That seemingly mundane step? Attention.

When hired by Disney to observe what infants and toddlers paid the most attention to at their Orlando theme park and hotels I was surprised to discover that it was not the colorful, lively rides, friendly staff nor the snacks.  It was their parents’ cell phones. That phone was the action center of their world as they observed it. When parents were using their phones to talk or take pictures they were not paying direct, complete attention to their children.

Whatever you pay attention to – or not – determines your world. Isolated or connected.

 It is impossible to communicate, much less bond, with someone who can’t or won’t focus on you.  Giving attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship, from a casual friendship to an enduring marriage. 

Giving and receiving undivided attention, however briefly, is the least that one individual can do for another and sometimes the most.  Multitasking not only reduces performance it also removes us from deepening connection with others.

“A developmental psychologist showed three pictures to children – a cow, a chicken and some grass,” wrote John Hagel. “He asked children from America which two of the pictures belonged together.  Most of them grouped the cow and chicken together because they were both objects in the same category of animals. 

Chinese children on the other hand tended to group the cow and grass together because “cows eat grass” – they focused on the relationship between two objects rather than the objects themselves.”

How does this happen? Some fault our individualistic, Western upbringing, focused on improving ourselves and bent on improving our children, from birth on.  We put our infants in strollers, high chairs and car seats whilst more of the world’s mothers hold babies to their bodies and share care amongst friends and families. As Rapt author, Winifred Gallagher found, “Even before they can talk these tots are primed to attend to what others are doing and feeling.”

That’s why quotes such as these have strong appeal for us independent-minded Americans: 

“Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

 “Society is always trying in some way to grind us down to a single flat surface.”  ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes 

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” ~ Robert Frost

Yes, they reflect important traits of self-reliance and identity.  They focus on self-discovery, learning and achievement as the highest value rather than rather than on learning with others and caring for each other. In this ever more connected world, those who will live the fullest lives may shift their mindset to see the strengths of both approaches.

Most motivational speakers, self-help writers, therapists and pharmacologists encourage us to focus on “me”.  They suggest that we  look inward to understand and improve ourselves for a happier, better life.  That’s not wrong; just incomplete.  We are most likely to learn more about ourselves, to grow and to be happy, when in relationship with others. Further, in this connected world, we have they capacity to create something greater – with others, if we pay attention to the sweet spot of mutual benefit. As every well-matched tennis or chess player and happy book club member or spouse knows, simply socializing with others enables us to bond, build community – and self-confidence.

That’s not all. Research shows that paying attention to the other guy often helps you more than him. Attending to others also evokes responses that can help us feel cared for, useful and connected to the larger world.

Paying attention is an individual effort, but it’s also a kind of social cement that holds groups together and helps them feel part of something greater than themselves.

That may be one of the reasons why the Dalai Lama, rooted in the other-directed, interdependent Asian village life, believes that “my religion is kindness.”

Psychologist Thomas Bradbury says, “I am continually impressed by the inconsistency of sustained attention in relationships.  Partners complain about this all the time, and kids probably would too if they could.  We’ have evolved with the capacity to attend to each other, but it’s not exactly dominant in our lives. Imagine a world where it was!”

Positive Illusions

There are tempting rewards for spouses who pay attention positively, ones that would seem to hold true for all enduring relationships. Research shows that:

• The most important difference between happy and unhappy couples is whether their focus is on the positive or the negative.

•  Contented spouses see each other through rose-colored glasses, holding an even more favorable view than their partners have of themselves.

• Over time, each person actually becomes more like the mate’s rosy vision. So discovered psychologist Sandra Murray.

One Takeaway to Practice

Next to honing your top talent your key to having more options in a life you can savor is to strengthen your capacity to connect  and collaborate with people extremely unlike you.

Focus on the sweet spot of common interest or mutual benefit even and especially if you don’t feel that you understand or even like that other person at first.  In so doing, like practicing yoga, you become increasingly flexible and open to new ideas, thus more relevant and able to resonate with others. Inevitably that leads a richer, more meaningful life.

Along the way of your shared experiences, you may even become friends with some of those individuals with whom you interact – even though they don’t act right, like you.  

At least this is the path I am stumbling along and mostly enjoying.  I’d love hearing how your path forward is similar or different than this.

Categories: behavior, Book, Caring, collaboration, Connecting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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  1. Posted March 29, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post. Attention is so hard to give, it takes the whole body/mind. Maybe that’s why things like mediation & yoga hold so much potential/value.

    And on connecting with people extremely unlike you, another reason I like to do that is I’d like to be able to make friends with anyone – not just someone with a similar background / set of values – and giving attention, learning the other’s story, is the path to making that connection.

  2. Elizabeth Pearce
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article –

    It reminded me that the book “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” was still sitting unread.

    But what we focus on and attend to in our lives is what we get more of. Most of us let the time consuming and unimportant stuff keep us from focusing on “the big things” like how we connect with others. The urgent and unimportant quadrant is full. The important and nonurgent items, usually fewer in number, are prone to be ignored without concious effort.

    In my experience, that’s how I lose friends – I just get so distracted or overwhelmed by the noise of life, that I forget to stay in touch.

    Thanks for the reminder to step back and

  3. Elizabeth Pearce
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    remain focused on what I really want in life.

  4. Posted March 30, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Well I will do my part Elizabeth to stay in touch as I enjoy your company and always learn from you. Thanks for your candor.
    And Ben, as a fan of your Collaborative Journey I am honored that you stopped by

  5. Posted March 30, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Thought-provoking post, Kare . It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the nature of attention, a topic I think you’ve talked about before. It sounds obvious, but how do I know you are paying attention to me? What signals tell me that? I think you wrote about Japanese cues being different from American cues (comments about phone messages). And if different cultures have different cues, then maybe different generations have different cues. Knowing more about that would enable Millenials and Boomers to communicate more effectively in work and outside of work. Fascinating!

  6. Posted March 31, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, few behavioral or brain studies have been done between cultures or generations – “just” observations by cultural anthropologists. In the studies cited in the book Rapt, we know that infants are primed quite early as to, not only what they focus on but when and how long.

    And the multi-tasking tendency that makes us less smart in our thinking, seems to be happening among all ages through the boomer generation and appears to be something that those raised with screens in their lives, the so-called Digital Natives, are more likely to multi-task more.

    They do not have life experience when people did that less. Yes the generational difference has huge implications for work – and social and personal life. And, since many in Japan and elsewhere, started using mobile phones in larger percentages than in the U.S. (many less “developed” countries have people who only know cells as their personal and work communication tool) the role that phones play in how we focus attention and get things done and form relationships is much different across cultures – just from that phenom.

  7. Posted April 22, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post, you hit the target completely on the question of focus and self discovery. The puzzle is half complete the journey does not stop just because we have found out what makes us truly happy but in fact just began. Now we must take that happiness and find creative ways for others to do the same. I too love the quote “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” ~ Robert Frost

    Through my experience I found what made me happy revealed itself from my frustrations, it was the thing that drove me to become a change agent. I knew from a young age the helping other to connect to their expression of greatness then share that expression with others was the only way to live my life. So sometimes the discovery of passion comes out of frustration but paying attention to path and knowing the real destination allows you to share your passion and build connects much easier.

    look forward to future post

  8. Michael Yanakiev
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    A very though provoking post – right into the target! One can’t but agree with the author’s findings on focus and self discovery. Yet apart from the given evidence a human being is also existential. Which means that it is
    difficult for him to stay focused permanently since he strives to to make the quantum leap into the unknown reality,never to be satisfied with the status -go . So it is interesting to see how one is going to handle situations like these that may end up in being self destructive. I doubt if happiness, a very fuzzy concept of its own can be
    achieved by just staying attentive and focused. I don’t agree that American’s are that independent-minded as
    they label themselves just citing a few selected quotes. I can rather reason the opposite-they tend to be the most manipulative society, taking the mass case in mind.”Cow eats grass” are funny examples ,from which to reach such radical observations..Americans can’t even comprehend the mentality of “The Go Game” in order to apply it into all spheres of life! Thanks.

  9. Posted May 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I can see so many examples in my life that agree with the view that people are more happy and productive when in relationship with one another. I will endeavor to be more ‘present’ at meetings and other interactions, and less ‘multitasking’ by consulting my blackberry instead of listening to the conversation.

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