Sunday 7 April 2024

Generative Attention

I have always been struck by the phrase that Nancy Kline uses to describe the quality of attention that is at the heart of the Thinking Environment: Generative Attention.  The idea being that such attention is generative of good thinking in the person to whom we are giving it.

One of the ways in which we seek to demonstrate attention is by keeping our eyes on the eyes of the thinker.  This is not about staring the thinker down, of course; we talk of a 'soft gaze' and the thinker may look all over the place as she or he thinks, and often does so.  But if, whenever they glance at the listener, they see the listener looking at them, and looking interested, that is a non-verbal encouragement to keep thinking. 

And then, the other morning, Jane, my wise and wonderful wife, commented:

'I’ve been studying prayer; and it is clear that God always makes the first move - that when we turn to Him, He is already looking at us, waiting for us. It reminded me of your thing about attention: whenever the Thinker looks at you, she sees that you are already attending to her.

That set me thinking, not least about the idea of Generative Attention. For in Christian (and I think, though I’m no expert, Islamic and Jewish) theology, God holds us in being momemt-by-moment; Creation is a continuing action, not a one-off event. I am, because He is thinking of me. 

All of which reminds me, of course, of this famous pair of limericks:

Ronald Knox

There once was a man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

Dear Sir,
              Your astonishment's odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
                          Yours faithfully,

I have seen the first limerick, and sometimes the second, attributed  to Ronald Knox (incidentally the last man, I believe, to translate the whole Bible, singe-handedly, into English - and a fine translation it is!)  But I digress.

My real point is that it is God's attention that is truly Generative Attention. As Tolkien pointed out, human creativity is always sub-creativity.  And so it is here: when we offer Generative Attention, we are imitating God, which (in my theology) is what we are called to do.  And that could explain why it is so powerful and (sub-)creative a process.


With thanks to Christina @ for sharing her photo on Unsplash

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