A Fascinated Listener by Adriano Bonifazi (1876)
"Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing."
Robert Cardinal Sarah
What is Attentiveness?
To be attentive is to be keenly aware of, and interested in knowing for the inherent good that it brings. It is to attempt to understand things in a deep and profound way, and people in their innermost being – their thoughts, needs, desires, hopes and frustrations. This knowledge is not merely disinterested, but attuned to the truth, to the good, and in the case of others, to their well-being.
The virtue of attention requires studiousness, rather than curiosity. In our era where information and novelty are normative, many think of curiosity as a virtue, but when we reflect on it further, it is studiousness that we should strive for. Curiosity denotes a propensity to be interrupted by, and drawn to many things. It means being unfocused, always looking for the next thing to be temporarily invested in, or distracted by. It leaves us miles wide and inches deep in our understanding of things and of people.
In the context of being attentive to reality and to others in our lives, curiosity manifests as a short attention span, aimless flitting about in conversation or interests from topic to topic, perhaps even avoiding a genuine connection in favour of the perpetuation of ‘small talk’, or remaining at the surface level of understanding a subject before moving on to the next when achieving a deeper grasp requires more effort.
To be attentive we must be attuned to the subject matter at hand, or to the other person. This means being wholly preoccupied with the object of study, or in the case of the other person, to their whole being – their expressions, body language, speech, and subtle cues. Often times, we are only half-listening to people when we speak, instead trying to think of the next thing to say.
To be attentive to people is to be lost in care and concern in an attempt to understand what they are saying, and feeling, especially their deeper motivations, and the place that they’re coming from.
A final dimension of attentiveness to people is entering into the frame of mind of another. Sympathy is understanding the feelings of another, empathy is feeling what the other is feeling, and compassion – literally, to suffer with – is to take on someone else’s feelings and concerns and to become involved in a tangible way with their situation through action that goes beyond recognition.
Like the exercise of all virtues, by being attentive we show that we genuinely care, and are motivated by love.
Written by Peter Copeland
Interview on Attentiveness with Ryan Khurana
How do you define attentiveness or listening?
Attentiveness is the act of understanding another. An inattentive person presumes what another person will say or what they mean, or gets distracted and constantly changes their point of focus. The attentive person truly understands, not simply by hearing words or noticing details, but by observing something fully and totally, making sense of the whole of what is meant. When you give something your undivided attention, everything about it becomes important, and while not everything deserves attention, lacking this capacity prevents you from doing the things that matter.
How does the virtue of attentiveness or listening relate to work?
In my job, I have to understand what my boss, the CEO, needs to be done at all times. Often his requests are denser than they seem, but by learning his mannerisms, his use of words, his priorities, and his values, I can interpret these and make sure I do my job quickly and effectively. Communicating tersely is not just something done by busy executives, everywhere in life you see people really mean more than they say. Working well by getting things done correctly the first time around, paying attention to all the subtleties of communication, and learning about the person and how they communicate, ensures that all this is possible.
Why is it important in a work context?
I'm sure everyone's had the experience of misinterpreting a task or missing a deadline because they didn't know what was expected. Even if you followed up to clarify, you might still not have understood. And to save face, you just pretend to. This experience is common and remains so for those who are inattentive. Everyone misinterprets and makes mistakes, but the attentive person can learn from them, can correct them, and knows how to follow up well.
How have you personally built on this virtue?
Attention is a hard skill, but can only be cultivated in silence. The more you spend time in silence with God, and remove the possibility of distraction, the more you will be able to notice how much more is contained in every statement and action than appears at first glance. Silence can train you to think about what you're doing, to not let your mind wander, and to give full focus on the person or task at hand.
Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about attentiveness or listening?
My spiritual director guided me through a plan of life that made adequate time for silent mental prayer.
Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?
I have a bad habit of going with my gut instantly, and trusting that I figured something out without careful thought. Building in time delays to my work, forcing myself to spend at least a certain amount of time before communicating my results helps to calm me down and reflect on whether I really should be as confident as I initially felt.
Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?
At my current place of work, our Head of Growth excellently represents attentiveness. He is always patient with others and slow to respond, carefully digesting the information provided. He always takes copious notes and writes thorough summaries of his interactions with others. He rarely cuts others off or responds rashly, but takes the time to respond directly to what they said, demonstrating his attention.
About Ryan Khurana
Ryan Khurana is Lead, Machine Learning and Advanced at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). Prior to joing MLSE he was Chief of Staff at WOMBO.ai, a Generative AI company based in Toronto that produces global chart-topping mobile apps. In his role, he works directly with the founder and CEO on all operational, legal, and financial matters. Prior to joining WOMBO, Ryan was an Analytics Program Manager at CBRE, where he developed the AI programs for administering the facilities of Infrastructure Ontario, and supported the logistics for ventilating all long-term care homes in the province at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ryan was born in Toronto in 1996, and is currently a resident of that city. He holds a Master of Management Analytics from University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from the University of Manchester.