Learning to give attention to the other person is a profound aspect of every relationship, including all successful professional relationships. It is easy when the person or the problem one is asked to deal with is attractive and interesting, but my concern here is with every client, every professional, and every problem with which we are presented. That may require a little more effort. Let us first put my discussion of attention in a brief historical context.
Locke regarded attention as a mode of thought hardly in need of special explanation: “When ideas float in our mind without any reflection or regard of the understanding, it is what the French call reverie; our language has scarce a name for it: when the ideas that offer themselves are taken notice of, and, as it were, registered in the memory, it is attention: when the mind with great earnestness, and of choice, fixes its view on any idea, considers it on all sides, and will not be called off by the ordinary solicitation of other ideas, it is that we call ‘intention’ or ‘study’” (Locke, 1947, II, XIX, 1). There is a hint here that Locke sees attention as in some way linked to “intention”—that is, with a capacity to inform if not actually to influence behavior.
William James moves the discussion forward when he identifies two processes that occur in every attentive act: there is first an adjustment of sensory organs (e.g., turning the head); second, and most important, there is “the anticipatory preparation from within of the ideational centres concerned with the object to which attention is paid” (James, 1950, p. 411). James has the imagination in mind here. Giving attention involves intention to do something that in turn requires the use of, and therefore development of, the imagination.
Apart from a period in the mid-twentieth century when the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner swept all before it, the last hundred years has seen cognitive psychology emerge as the dominant influence in psychology. Attention has now become a major topic of interest to psychologists, though most of the focus has been on its mechanics, its neurophysiology. This direction of inquiry was in part stimulated by the insights of communications engineering. Broadbent, for example, was puzzled by the fact that despite the apparently confusing mass of information presented to human perception at any one time, it was possible for an individual to concentrate on particular ideas, experiences, and events, such that he or she could bring them together and work with them. This suggested to Broadbent that there was a capacity limit in the human brain that meant that most information was either not noticed or passed over (Broadbent, 1958). Broadbent associated attention with a bottleneck on the analogy of overload in information technology.
Such reductionist perspectives have been subjected to criticism by many, including Christopher Mole, who considered the concept of attention from a philosophical point of view. He proposes that attention is analogous to the performance of an orchestra (Mole, 2011). No one instrument or section of the orchestra can “perform” the whole work on its own; unison is a necessary condition. Analogously, Mole argues that attention involves the cognitive unison of all aspects of the human being, for attention can only be understood adverbially, Mole says. By this he means that attention implies agency; when people focus on what they are doing, they are acting attentively. We shall see that this is illuminating from the point of view of the professional relationship and finds an interesting echo in our theological framework.