Charles Handy on the importance of paying attention
My wife and I amused ourselves last year by dividing our friends and acquaintances into two categories, drains or radiators. The radiators were the ones that warmed the atmosphere and made life increasingly pleasant. The drains did exactly as the name suggests – they drained us, leaving us exhausted. What was interesting and unexpected, was who fell into which category.
Take Bill. He saw himself as God’s gift to humanity but became increasingly a pain as we had to listen again and again to his tedious stories and his bad jokes. In fact he became a bore and actually a drain. On the other hand Tom, who hardly said a word, seemed to infuse the place with his happy temperament and make us all feel better without seeming to say anything. He was a typical radiator really; you don’t notice radiators because they are painted the same colour as the walls but they change the whole atmosphere of a room. That was Tom. How did he do it?
At the same time, I have been having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a famous theatrical director. I said, “what is the secret to being a director”? and he said, “oh, it’s just two words, ‘pay attention’”.
And I thought, that is more about life than directing plays. That is exactly what Tom does, he pays attention. When he visited, he seemed riveted by everything I said or what my wife said when she talked about her photography. Of course, I’d heard it all before, but he made her really glow and it was a pleasure to see her come alive. He did it without saying a word, just by looking.
So, I try to copy Tom. But it is exhausting, listening, particularly if you are paying attention, really listening. I mean, reading this thought to yourself and thinking about it is actually quite exhausting. So if I send you to sleep I don’t really apologise, it is just part of the nature of thinking and paying attention.
So, have fun deciding who is a drain and who is a radiator but don’t tell them. They wouldn’t understand. Then decide which you want to be. I am afraid it is quite possible you are a bit of a drain. I know that I go on too long with my little thoughts. It could probably become part of my conversation because actually I get my inspiration from listening to other people talk. And if I really pay attention to them and stop drinking more wine, I get inspiration.
On the other hand, sometimes I educate myself by talking. One of my heroes, on whom I model myself, is a chap called Peter Drucker, one of the great gurus of management thinking. He lived in California. I asked him once, “Peter”, I said, “where do you get all your ideas from? You are full of wise thoughts,” “Ah,” he said, “I get them by listening …. [long, long pause] to myself”.
At first I thought, what an arrogant old bugger! And then I realised, that is exactly what I do myself. Only I put it down to the Irish. The Irish have a saying, “how do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” And it is very funny, you quite often find yourself saying very wise things, much to your surprise.
So pay attention to yourself in your wildest moments and you might be talking words of great wisdom. You too could be a radiator just by paying attention to what other people are doing. And you might even educate yourself, if you pay attention to what you are saying. For how do you know what you think until you hear what you are saying? Try it.
Charles Handy is one of the giants of contemporary thought. His books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke last year following the death of his wife in a car crash. This piece was dictated to his carer.