Be an attention giver – not an attention seeker

I’m an attention seeker. You probably are too.

I don’t throw tantrums like my two-year-old self anymore to get attention. I’ve gotten smarter about it. I go out and achieve things so that you’ll give me recognition. I make sure I am the smartest person in the room so that you’ll listen to my ideas. I cultivate thousands of followers on social media to feel important. I collect titles and degrees so that I can impress you with my knowledge. I get promoted so that you have to do what I say. I win tournaments so for a brief moment I am the centre of attention on a grand stage.

I’m an attention junkie in search of my next hit.


Why do we crave attention so much?

Tony Robbins put it perfectly. Humans have two needs – to feel like we are enough, and to feel loved. For most people the two are linked. If you are not enough then you won’t be loved. If you are not smart enough, funny enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, accomplished enough, strong enough, earning enough, ‘fill in the blank’ enough… then you will not be worthy of love.

And how do you measure if you are enough? And if you are loved? The simplest answer is attention.

When you give someone your attention you are telling them that they are worthwhile. That spending my time on you is worth it. That giving you a slice of my energy is a good investment. That gifting you with my focus is meaningful. That you deserve to be the centre of my world for an hour or a minute or a second. That you are enough. And therefore that you are loved.

This year I’ve been experimenting with attention. Namely, giving it away. It costs you little to nothing. Makes you feel good inside. And it often results in you getting some attention back (gotta love virtuous cycles).


A few of the things I’ve tried:

Unexpected compliments. Have you ever been having a crappy day and out of the blue a stranger tells you that you look stunning in that outfit? It makes your day, and it took them five seconds to do. I feel so strongly about the power of giving away this small slice of positive attention that I wrote ‘give one unexpected compliment per day’ on my list of goals and habits for the year. Your compliment can range from ‘you have fabulous posture’ to ‘the way you handled that difficult situation was so impressive’ to ‘I overheard some of your team members talking about how much they love working for you, and that they’d follow you to a new team if you moved’. Compliments can also be written down to make them even more meaningful to people. To make this really work, your compliment (spoken or written) needs to have three elements:

  • Specificity – be detailed, not general, about the good you see in the person
  • Authenticity – make sure the compliment is real and comes from the heart
  • Surprise – catch them off-guard to make it memorable


Silence. People hate silence – they rush to fill it with words. But when you let the silence stretch eventually you get to people’s real thoughts. Their real answers live underneath the social excuses and what they think you want to hear. You need to give space – and silence – to let these come to the fore. Space and silence tell someone that you are paying attention. That they matter. That you won’t just brush aside what they have to say. I did my life coaching certification and they teach you in the course to sit with silence. I experimented with this not just in coaching conversations, but in social ones, work ones, and even on first dates! I learnt a few things.

  • Maintain eye contact for extra discomfit (and more real answers). Don’t fidget
  • Let the silence stretch as long as you need to
  • Once you get the first answer, ask ‘what else’ and let the silence stretch again. Repeat as needed
  • If your date isn’t comfortable with a little awkward silence they are probably not worth dating!


Undivided focus. Look into someone’s eyes and listen for their words without the distraction of your phone in your hand or your keyboard in front of you. I had a manager once who had this incredible skill of making you feel like you were the only person in the room who mattered when he was talking to you. People (including me) used to light up in his presence. It’s incredibly rare to have someone’s undivided attention these days – when you do get it it is a compelling way of saying ‘you matter, you are worth it’. A few things to remember:

  • Turn off your technology. Even if you ignore the ping of your phone it will still break the moment
  • If you are pretending to pay attention but actually thinking though your list of household chores people will know
  • Remember how good it feels when you are the centre of someone’s world for a moment. Try to impart that feeling onto others


Gifts. I love birthdays (I’m still young enough not to dread the addition of another year onto my age.) And the best part about birthdays is presents. A thoughtful gift shows that someone spent time thinking about you, that they’ve been paying attention to what you’d like, and they spent precious money on you. In the age of a rushed ‘HB’ on Facebook a gift means that you meant a lot to someone. The power of gifts as a mechanism for demonstrating attention is also magnified when you receive a gift for no reason.

I learnt this lesson as a teenager and have been trying to reinstate it into my life. A mentor on a camp I went to as a 14-year-old took us all out on the street and gave us a bunch of flowers. Our task was to give each flower to a stranger with the phrase ‘here’s a free flower just to brighten up your day’. That exercise changed people’s lives – not just the recipients, but also the givers. Gifts work best when:

  • They are unexpected and for no particular reason
  • You give it in private – that shows that you are paying attention to them, not trying to get the spotlight on yourself for giving the gift
  • They are accompanied by thoughtful words. Take the time to write a card that goes with your gift
  • They are specific to the person. If you give everyone in your team the same bottle of wine for a job well done, it has far less significance than gifting that first edition novel of their favourite author


Quality time. Scheduling, and then spending time with someone is a massive way in which we can pay attention. We are all busy so carving out a few hours of your day to spend with someone sends the message loud and clear that they are important to you. That they matter. What you spend that time doing is far less important than the fact that you are dedicating your time to them. Since I travel so much this one has been difficult for me. I miss my friends and family back home and I want them to know that. Scheduling FaceTime calls from opposite sides of the world is the best solution I have so far. And when I’m in the same country my friends get an overload of my company as I try to make sure they know that I love them! (They probably can’t wait for me to leave again.) What’s important:

  • Don’t be late. Being late shows that you value your time more than the other person’s, and that’s the exact opposite of the message you are trying to send
  • Be present with the person, not thinking about other things or responding to electronic pings
  • One-on-one time is important. Don’t try to cram your quality time into a big group setting so you can tick off seeing all your friends in one go


Doing something to help. My mum got me onto this one. ‘It would be so nice if you’d just take the washing in for me one time’ are the types of comments she used to say. What she really meant was that if I paid enough attention to her busy schedule, noticed the undone chores, and cared enough about her to fix them – then I’d be showing that I loved her. For some people (like me) an act of service can become a favour they have to repay so that the scales are balanced, for others it’s a way of showing that you are paying attention and want to help. So this technique won’t have the same impact on everyone in your life. Doing something to help doesn’t have to be something big, but it helps if:

  • You don’t wait for them to ask. Be proactive
  • It’s a surprise
  • It’s done without fanfare or calling attention to yourself, and definitely without asking for something in return


From zero sum to infinity

I used to think attention was a zero sum game. If I earned your attention, and therefore your love, you couldn’t also give it to someone else. Even the phrase ‘paying attention’ implies that by giving attention I’m worse off. I’ve gotten pretty good at winning things, achieving things and being good at things to make sure I got a big slice of the attention pie. I’m sure I’m not alone in having fallen into a pattern of achievement, receiving recognition and attention, and then finding the next thing to achieve. Like drug addicts we have to keep those attention hits coming.

But experimenting with the methods above – unexpected compliments, undivided focus, gifts, quality time and helping out – has taught me the opposite. The more attention you give the greater the pie gets. And there is no limit. Sharing the spotlight with others doesn’t dim the light on you. It doesn’t make you less than enough. It doesn’t mean you are less loved. Instead it lifts someone else up, who in turn has more energy to lift another up and so on until it comes back to you.

‘As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same’ ~ Marianne Williamson

Of course I still love achieving things, but now it’s not the only method I know to receive attention and feel like I am enough, and that I am loved.


Lean in and pay attention

It’s uncomfortable to give attention. It can also be uncomfortable to receive it. More than a few times I’ve caught myself jumping in to fill a silence that stretched too long. Giving someone a generic ‘great job’ compliment that barely registers on their attention radar. Pulling out my phone at lunch with a friend. Forgetting to buy someone a gift and rushing to their house with a standard box of chocolates. I’m trying to un-train those habits and lean into the discomfit.

Lastly, now that I’ve played around with giving attention, the next step for me is learning to live without it. How can I feel like I am enough without constantly satisfying my need for attention? How can I feel loved without the external validation of other people? I don’t have all the answers yet, but feel free to join me on the journey.

In the meantime… Use silence. Give compliments. Focus entirely on them. Help someone out. Spend time together. Share gifts. GIVE ATTENTION.

Giving attention tells someone they matter. That they are important. That they are enough. That they are loved.

Let’s be more than attention seekers. Let’s be attention givers.

June 5, 2017