How our attention can make us better communicators

Updated: 22/08/2020

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Focus and attention are key to learning new skills
Bruce Parry, a former British Royal Marine army commando turned film maker has spent years travelling the globe living with remote indigenous people. He is a man fascinated by what makes other groups tick. His three documentary series for the BBC entitled Tribe, Amazon and Arctic, explore these extreme environments, and many of the important issues faced by people who are on the environmental frontline.

 In his film Tawai, available on Amazon, he spends time with the Penam Tribe, who are one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes on the planet. When hunting with one of the tribe members, he describes the experience as like watching someone in meditation. The tribesman, who was hunting using a poison-arrow, was in a state of complete focus and concentration, listening to the movements of the forest, the sounds of the wind and the birds, the crack of twigs and smell of the fruit trees. He was taking in a lot of messages at one time. The hunt required complete awareness.

 Parry speaks to an Oxford scholar and psychiatrist, Dr Iain McGilchrist, who explains that the hunter is using a very particular type of attention, and attention is what we build the world out of. Some parts of our brains draw on one thing at a time, and other is able to draw on a lot of things simultaneously. These two kinds of attention produce completely different sorts of worlds. One, as Dr McGilchrist says, has lots of parts which lack context, the other sees the world as a series of connected things, which forms a whole picture. Being able to do both – solve detailed problems whilst seeing the whole picture, is the stuff of a good leader and a good communicator. 

Bruce Parry books:


Extreme focus enhances skill acquisition

Bruce Parry and his time spent with these ancient tribes might just hold the key to improving our communication skills and enriching the time we spend with others, whether that be in a client meeting or during a business lunch: to listen, to stay attentive to the other person, to read between the lines of what is being said, or written. In a way, it is to try and be a bit more like the focused hunter. Can we expand our awareness of the messages we are being given? What does this mean when you are learning a new language, or using new language in a professional environment? It means that we become a lot more adept at thinking on our feet and responding to what is happening in any given conversation with all our skills at our disposal.

Learning a language entails becoming attuned to much more than the structure of a sentence.  Learning English can help all of us bring a new type of attention to our lives. Now is the time to adopt new ways of being connected, and bringing all of our skills to our interactions with others, whether that is the negotiating table or the dinner table.

By Emer Martin

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