In an extract from The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, Robert Zaretsky discusses about Weil’s concept of attention revolving around compassion and the divesting of ourselves.
Compassion, in contrast, means that I identify with the afflicted individual so fully that I feed him for the same reason I feed myself: because we are both hungry. In other words, I have paid him attention. It is a faculty that does not latch onto the other, but instead remains still and open … In order for the reality of the other’s self to fully invest us, we must first divest ourselves of our own selves.
For Weil, attention is about process, rather than a particular product or outcome.
Normally, when we pay attention to someone or something, we undertake what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: our eyes lock on another’s eyes, our expressions reflect the proper response, and our bodies shift in relation to the object to which we are paying attention. This kind of attention flourishes in therapists’ offices, business schools, and funeral homes. It is a performative rather than reflective act, one that displays rather than truly pays attention. This sort of attention is usually accompanied by a kind of frowning application—the very same sort, as Weil notes, that leads us to a self-congratulatory “I have worked well!”
For Weil, attention is a “negative effort,” one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine. Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. “It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted.” Scorning practices like memorization and dictation that impose the “right answers” upon students, she acknowledges that the practices she wished to instill in students were alien to schools in her own day (and they remain alien to most schools in our own day). “Although people seem to be unaware of it today,” she declares, “the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies… All tasks that call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reasons and to an almost equal degree.”
This reminds me of John Campbell discussion of ‘listening to help the other person understand’:
Professor David Clutterbuck, in a keynote at Positive2012, suggested that there are 5 different types of listening:
- Listening while waiting to speak
- Listening to disagree
- Listening to understand
- Listening without agenda/intent
- Listening to help the other person understand
In a coaching context it is easy to see how 1 and 2 don’t belong. We can probably see the value of Levels 3 and 4 in coaching and leadership contexts but it is # 5 Listening to help the other person understand that can have the most impact in a coaching context.
It is interesting to think about this alongside debates about the attention economy.