Attentive Observation

April 27, 2007

Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, 25th Anniversary Edition : A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, defines love as actively seeking that which is good for another person. It’s a focus of effort, mindfulness, and emotional energy on the needs of someone else.

I believe that one of the most effective ways to do this is through attentive observation. Attentive observation means you focus your awareness on another person, watching and listening and feeling and intuiting what is going on. It means you pay attention in a way that is undeniable, because you communicate what you are observing clearly and specifically.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish give great examples of the power of attentive observation in their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. One area is effective praise. Instead of telling a child, “Wow! That’s fantastic!” they encourage parents to say, “I see lots of blue at the top of your painting, like it’s the sky, and this red building with a chimney could be a house. I see children playing by that tree, and there are lots of birds.” It is validating and empowering to be acknowledged in such a specific and direct way.

Another way they use attentive observation is to nudge a child towards correcting a behavior or solving a problem. “I see toys spread out all over the table we’ll need for dinner in about 15 minutes,” or “I hear two brothers arguing and I see one raising a toy to throw it!” This kind of attentive description puts the focus on the situation, not the child, but says to the child, “You can figure this out and make it right.”

A third amazing way they use attentive observation is to give deep encouragement and acknowledgement of strong character traits. It’s especially useful as a counterweight to a child’s negative self-image. For the child who gets low grades on homework and sometimes doesn’t bother to turn it in, they would suggest finding a way to “catch” the child being responsible, especially with schoolwork. Then they would give the report, “You’ve been working on that homework without a break this afternoon. That’s what I call diligent!”

They would also suggest finding everyday opportunities to summarize children’s behaviors. “When you held the door open for the woman carrying those packages, you were being courteous.” For a pattern, they recommend something like, “Sara, I’ve noticed you help your brother get ready and find his things. You understand he needs help because he’s young. That shows consideration.”

Attentive observation is powerful in therapy. It can be a gentle confrontation, such as, “One of your goals is to improve your relationship with your girlfriend, but you’ve just criticized her and talked about her like you don’t respect her.” It can summarize successes, like, “That’s three weeks without blowing money on a shopping binge.”

Attentive observation is powerful in coaching. Used to summarize and challenge, it helps propel a client forward. For example, “You set three major goals to accomplish by summer. Now you say you have too much to do and you’re getting frustrated. It sounds like all or nothing. Am I understanding it correctly?” Used to encourage, as in, “Based on what you accomplished last year, I have no doubt you’re the right person to be in charge of this,” it can provide authentic inspiration.

When delivered with compassion and respect, attentive observation is therapeutic, it is healing, and it is whole-making. It is also uplifting, it is encouraging, and it is compelling. It is intentional love.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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