Pay Attention


Now that is a stark word. 

Sometimes, we neglect to pay attention.  This is something that I have been thinking about lately.  The importance of simply paying attention to another person.  I recognize that others need to do this.  But, do I pay attention?

Have you ever been to someone’s house for dinner (maybe there were a number of people present) and few people seemed to show any interest in you or others there?  Everyone was friendly and pleasant; however, no one asked you anything.  No one asked you about your work, your home, your family, your church, etc.  In fact, no one really asked anyone else anything either.

I remember being at a dinner like this on one occasion.  Most of the people there had not seen one another in six months to a year.  At least one person was there who did not know most of these people.  Yet, the conversation was pretty thin.  No one asked questions other than a very general, "Well, how are things in Denver?"  But there was no follow-up to such a question.  The dinner conversation centered around a few people who told a few old stories.  After dinner, one or two talked while the others remained quiet or made some sort of "small talk."

I remember leaving that dinner feeling very dissatisfied.  Something was missing.  Something was out of place.  We had been together and yet we were not together.  Later it occurred to me that one problem with this setting was that no one was really paying attention to others.  No one really showed a genuine interest in others.

Contrast this with conversations in which someone really pays attention to another.  The other person listens.  She asks questions.  She asks for further elaboration.  She is not quick to change the subject or begin talking about herself.  Rather, she has a way of probing and showing interest.

Yes, that’s it.  People who pay attention to others really do show an interest.  Why?  They are interested.

Quite often, families come together and they really don’t know one another.  Oh they have formed certain perceptions and opinions, but they may rarely ask good questions of each another.  Consequently, the parents really don’t know their adult children or grandchildren.   The adult children may really not know their parents.  Brothers and sisters may really not know one another at all.  Cousins may no longer know one another.  These family dinners can become places where strangers who are related come together and share a meal but never share their lives.

I think about some of the people I know who "pay attention" well.  When I am with these people, they show interest.

  • Carl — at our church.  An excellent listener.  Asks questions.
  • Charles — a longtime friend who amazed me a long time ago as I saw how he paid such close attention to the lives of his high school sons — knowing when they had tests, who they were taking to special dinners, aware of their relationships, etc.
  • Doug — who asks questions.  Though I see him very little, we stay connected, in part, because he shows such an interest in his friends.
  • Steve — who in conversation will ask a number of wonderful, even probing, questions.  He shows such interest in his friends.

Yes, I know that paying attention to another is a two-way street.  While I cannot control how another may respond, I can take the initiative in my relationships to pay attention to a person whom I care about.

One way of paying attention is by showing a sincere interest in the other person.  In conversation, one can do this by asking questions.  Yet, there are many other ways of paying attention to another.  This might be worth thinking about.

Question: What lets you know that another is genuinely interested in you as a person?  What do you do in your relationships to pay attention to another person? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “Pay Attention

  1. Excellent thoughts! My wife and I were discussing a party we went to the other day and we had similar thoughts, but you expressed them better. Good stuff!To your first question, "What lets you know that another is genuinely interested in you as a person?" I believe when I talk to a person they are actually looking at me instead of the floor or wall. Also, what is our relationship outside of a formal party, such as being at home or out and about. I believe a person’s relationship outside of the formal setting show much. To your second question, "What do you do in your relationships to pay attention to another person?" I try to turn off my cell phone or turn it on vibrate so it will not distract. I try to get rid of the things which may distract my focus on their thoughts. I also try not to interrupt. One more, I try not to think of how to respond until I have heard all their thoughts. When I think when they are talking, I can miss their thoughts. Just my thoughts.

  2. "Looking at you" is hard for people who grow up in a world where such directness is interpreted negatively. Also, it is painfully difficult for shy people to not look everywhere else except you. Sometimes looking at someone while they’re talking makes it harder for them to say what they’re trying to say. Also, ADD makes this challenging.Can you tell I have some experience wrestling with where my eyes belong in a conversation? 🙂

  3. Hey Jim,Thanks for your thoughtful post. My only observation is that others often see me as a good listener who is genuinely interested, askes questions, etc., but to my regret I seem to be far better at unwittingly neglecting my own wife and kids than others who are much less important to me. Why do we have this tendency, in spite of our best intentions, to neglect and take for granted those closest to us, who actually need us to pay attention to them the most?Rob

  4. Good thoughts and insights.  One of the things I love about my wife is that if she is reading a book or the paper and I start talking to her she closes the book or sets the paper aside.  That speaks SO much to me and how much she is taking in what I say.  She is also great about asking ‘the next question’ – sometimes to the point that I get uncomfortable….but I definitely know she is listening and interested!
    On the other end of the spectrum I have found that in talking with kids (I help out with our Jr/Sr high youth) asking better questions and remembering from week to week the conversations is one of the best ways I can show I am interested in them – but it takes effort and trusting God to help me remember…especially as I get older!

  5. Dave, Great comment.  Thank you very much.  Thanks for passing on what you wife does.  (Both in closing the book and in asking the "next question."  Also like what you said about working with kids.  It is interesting that sometime we are so focused on what we want to say, that we do not really think about what questions we might ask to draw someone else out.

  6. Nick,Thanks for sharing some of the challenges that you have experienced. It is good to hear your point of view and your experiences.  Thanks.

  7. Chris–This is such a good comment.  You are obviously very intentional in your listening and in paying attention to others.  Thanks for this.  You sound like a great guy.

  8. Good post, Jim.  Most people have something to say, something they want/need to talk about.  The shortage is people that care enough to ask and listen.  This world needs a lot more of the later.  As a side note, one of the interesting things people who are good listeners notice is that people they listen to don’t seem to return the favor.