A reflection on mutual attention, regard, inner space

Long post ahead! Enjoy this giraffe picture first ­čÖé


A few days ago I read Regardez Moi, an intriguing post from TeresaA about a horse clinic she attended. She reports how Nikki, the clinician, explained how she doesn’t use the term “respect” anymore when it comes to horses, in favour of “regard”. The latter term involves more the tuning of the horse’s attention to the person (and vice versa), rather than recognising some form of authority or leadership, or demanding compliance – “regard” can be seen as a communication agreement, before anything else can happen.

My own understanding of what she describes in the post is summarised in this schema, where an individual is surrounded by a circle, that includes and protects the individual’s personal space, time, resources and choices. Outside of it there is the external world, where many things happen, from which some of them try to reach the individual. The inputs are accepted when they pass through the circle’s doors:


Stimuli, inputs and requests from the outer world bounce off the circle walls, or come to the doors of an individual’s space and try to enter. The individual can use various strategies:

  • letting all inputs through the doors, and decide how to deal with them once they’re in (maybe thanks to abundant time/resources? or for fear of being mean when turning them away? or because the circle itself is incomplete or broken, so that inputs come inside as they wish?)
  • let some inputs in, keep others out, according to time/energy availability (preserves the individual when needed/wanted)
  • keep all inputs out a very strong circle and locked doors; pick very carefully what can pass the doors (the individual would feel overwhelmed, or unsafe, or is unable to properly process the inputs once they’re in)

“Regard” seems to me the label for “accepting inputs”, “be ready for communication”, “keep doors ready to be opened”. I find that this term applies well to the middle situation of the previous list, where the individual feels able to accept and process inputs, and is therefore willing to listen. Denying this regard means ignoring, refusing the communication right away, being focused on something else, being unreachable.

I wondered what can make one unwilling to accept inputs, for example because of fear or habit, and I found that the initial model was too simple. It doesn’t deal with what happens after the input has passed the doors. I have extended it and added a second circle inside:


The inputs can now pass a first door, get into a middle space that is managed by the individual, but that is not the core space, so it’s more like a waiting area. The individual decides then which of these inputs can pass the doors to the inner core, the truly personal space. From the outside perspective, the inputs passed the visible doors, so they have been accepted by the individual, and they are confident they will get some dedicated attention and feedback.

I am aware that this involves the maintenance of two attention gates, and it seems easier to use only one: that is, ignore everything (keep doors locked) until it’s the right moment to pay full attention to them. It is very safe, especially if one is not so good at managing the doors, so that everything that passes the first door is likely to run free in the inner space and feast on precious personal resources. But what would a single gate mean for the external world? That it┬á would need to repeat its requests until the “attention lottery” grants the prize – which can be never. The external inputs/requests have only a vague idea of how to increase their chances of being heard, because it all happens inside oneself, and the data they get are “no answer at all” or “full answer”, with no apparent pattern. It means that they will multiply their attempts and make the pressure even worse. (Job applications anyone? People or companies who don’t answer to mails or the phone?)

I find that both schemes rely on the ability to say no to inputs. The “no” in the schema is represented by an input going inside through the door, then back outside. If saying no is not possible, the only way to limit the input overflow is not to let them in at all, no matter how urgent they think they are. The two-circles scheme makes it possible to say: “I have noticed this input from outside. I have given some attention to it and I’m deciding what to do” while the input is not yet in the inner personal space. Then one can say either yes (and the input comes through the second set of doors) or no (and the input leaves the waiting area and comes back outside).

The two-gate model allows external inputs to get an answer quite fast, that is either a no, a yes-now, or a yes-in-the-future. I would like to work in that direction, because I feel that (at least some) external requests need an answer soon, at least a short one, out of politeness and regard. Some close friends provide me this kind of feedback, and I feel at ease with them, because I know I don’t have to ask more than once, and they are confident they can say no anytime. There this a sort of elastic connection and mutual consideration that I cherish a lot.

Enough for today… I’m still reflecting on this topic and will likely write more about it, thanks for reading so far!


Visit to the Museum for Communication Berlin


Some time ago I visited the Museum for Communication in Berlin, for the first time in many years that I live here. It was a pleasant experience: I was kept interested by the various ways in which the content was presented, the interactivity of the exhibition (especially in the first floor, with quizzes, robots, and various other funny art-like devices). I was not the only one having fun: there were two groups of children, who ran across the museum in detective suits, looking for specific items and solving riddles, following a tour designed by the museum. As children learn and remember by doing, I find that this kind of tour was a terrific idea to let them have fun and be active during the exploration of the museum.

There was definitely a lot to see! I was especially fascinated by the ceramic insulators display, and the lovely set of historical and iconic post-horns. Among the postal carriages there was an old Italian model from late 1800s that had “Impostazioni” written on the side – in modern Italian, “impostazioni” means “settings”, especially in the IT domain; at that time, it meant “items transmitted per post”. Funny and interesting find!

Outside the museum there are traffic lights, whose poles are completely covered by stickers. A closer look allows to recognise the museum stickers, which work as a ticket, and that one wears during the museum visit. Apparently, visitors who just exited the museum have taken the habit of peeling off the sticker and transferring it to the nearest pole. The whole looks both shabby and artistic:


That’s a museum I surely will recommend to friends who visit Berlin, and to anyone who hasn’t visited it yet ­čÖé


On miscommunication: filtering inputs

Today I have been thinking about how communication can be inefficient or broken. There are times when I feel misunderstood by people, even when we speak the same language and we already spent plenty of time together. I realised how I feel estranged, as if instead we had no common language, and that all that time together didn’t count.

How can this happen?

My current hypothesis is that there is a form of filtering on the receiving end, that is dropping a lot of input, because it comes in forms it doesn’t understand. For example a baby is crying: as it can’t speak yet, I have no information about what is making the baby uncomfortable – but it doesn’t mean that the crying has no reason at all, and I can ignore it. Or a friend keeps mentioning a book, or a particular event, that doesn’t say anything to me – it doesn’t mean it means anything at all: it means a lot to them!

Most people live in an environment that bombards everyone with an insane amount of input -most of which irrelevant- so the filtering is actually a great protection for the mind. I would only warn not to leave it on all the time, especially with loved ones.

In some cases, there is no active filtering of information, but rather the listening on an inefficient channel: for example, when a person doesn’t know a language well enough, they will speak very little and very simply. I could derive that that’s just how they are internally. But if I switch my attention to body language, or any other channel that the person is comfortable with, I will probably get closer to the actual thoughts and inner complexity of that person. I notice that it’s also how I interact with animals, observing, trying to parse the silent input, to find the language that expresses their internal world.

Icelandic friends, by Alessandra Barilla (Flickr)

I am trying to become aware of these filters of mine, by asking myself: “Is there really nothing more than this input? Can I increase the amount of input that I can understand? What are the inputs I am collecting, but not considering?” Sometimes these questions are painful, because they show me my limitations, and remind me of the situations where I was not able to listen and understand. Nonetheless, I feel the obligation to explore my limitations, because I can’t forgive myself if I said “I don’t understand” and I meant “I don’t care”.

That’s all for now… as usual, let me know your ideas in the comments!

Respect and communication without pressure: a horse’s owner perspective

I was discussing with a friend of mine over this post from Beautiful Mustang’s blog.We both understood that:

  • this horse reacts badly to pressure: putting even more pressure creates dangerous situations
  • lowering the communication down to whispers allows an efficient information flow

This makes me think of some non-Newtonian fluids, that react to pressure in a similar way: they are liquid and flowing at low pressures, but become solid when pressure rises. If you need them to flow, you have no alternative other than keep pressure low.

The parallel stops here, because fluids are inanimate and lack decision making processes – it is clear that the person that is using them for a given task has complete control over the situation. With a living creature there can be a divergence of goals and opinions, that create pressure from both sides. I absolutely refuse to increase the pressure until the other side surrenders; it’s a strategy that breaks objects, and scars animals and people for a very long time. I embrace the idea of perceiving when my pressure is creating resistance on the other side, and I aim to make the conscious decision to lower the pressure in order to let the other side come back to a flowing, more relaxed state.

We further reflected on the fact that this one can be a case of respecting an introverted being. I think it is even more: it is a case of respecting another opinion. Not just introverts deserve less pressure than others; everyone would benefit from being treated in a non-coercive way.

To finish with a picture, here is Leah, the whispering horse:

Source: Beautiful Mustang’s blog

The radar – a way of paying attention to others and being focused on your task

I have been visiting a Montessori preschool this week, and had my usual joy in observing without participating. I appreciated how the two teachers had all twenty children in mind, and moved from one to another to attentively guide them in a given exercise, gave ideas for further work, paid attention to all children who asked for a moment of it; and the children were calm and mainly focused on their occupations, called the teachers only seldom and always got an answer – even a “I’m busy now, but I come to you when I am done”. I found that profoundly calming, and a wise economy of communication (and noise. It was a smallish room with 20+ people in it, no way that everyone can talk simultaneously and be heard. Think of how restaurants can become incredibly loud!). If children grow in this two-way attention, they know that each call gets a feedback, so there is no need to call ten times in order to hope to be heard once – or worse, to make sure that the other person hasn’t forgotten you are there (how many children I have seen crying or calling their parents repetitively, without any more hope to be heard, but attempting to get attention by being annoying).

I reflected on that point on my way home. Some time ago I wrote a note about the ways of paying attention to someone else in the background, and be responsive when this person actually starts interacting. I experienced how some friends switch between full attention to me to full focus on something else, and I always felt as a nuisance when I interrupted them with the start of a conversation. There was no concept of background for them, there was no chance to me to pick the good time to chime in.

On the other extreme the radar process could take too much of the foreground space: I could pay attention to everything and get distracted by every new input. I find this exhausting, and disrespectful for the current task, that must pray that nothing pops up while it is being dealt with.

The sweet spot could be hard to reach and it depends much on how the inputs behave (some would like to get attention immediately, others would prefer to never disturb…), but I have seen people doing that with such a mastery that I am totally confident it can be done by everyone, with a bit of practice. My drum teacher can keep an eye on me when we play in the orchestra, such that he invariably spots if I’m lost, and we can debrief the concert afterwards with great accuracy. I strive to reach that ability when I will finally become a kindergarten teacher. I have experienced how relaxing it is to be in someone’s radar and to know you can ask for a moment of attention, so I definitely aspire of being that attentive kind of person for the children.

Doe Pair – by Carl Monopoli

On silence

I recently noticed that I start preferring moments of silent interaction instead of using words to explain my feelings (OK, this post excluded!).

Now I fully appreciate how people can share their feelings without words and sometimes even without gestures. Keeping each other in eyesight, or even sitting next to each other without eye contact. For a very verbalising person like me, it’s a big achievement, even a rediscovery of the time I was so young that I didn’t know any verbal language. I take it as a part of my work on observation step that comes before drawing. I feel I am getting the idea of how it is to be an animal – wordless, but not heartless. I come to appreciate when I share some time with close friends and we don’t feel the need to talk. I have fun stripping off the dialogues of some scenes of my daily interactions and get the rest (the rest! really?) of communication, sometimes in agreement with the words, sometimes not.

This picture comes from this post, from June’s blog “Chloe, the pony who wouldn’t”. I have enjoyed reading many of her accurate observations of her horses, interacting with each other and with people.

I chose to represent the content of this post with this particular picture, as I am reading a book about systemic pedagogy supported by horses (in German: Pferdegest├╝tzte systemische P├Ądagogik) from Imke Urmoneit (that book will get a dedicated post). She explains how horses communicate mostly with body language, something that human adults forget or consider less important that the verbal language. Horses answer to your body language, that is expression of sincere intentions, as opposed to verbal language: they can therefore make you notice an unconscious behaviour and let you address it, to help you becoming a more aware and balanced person. An example: while riding, you would ask the horse for more speed with a conscious signal, but unconsciously you are afraid of it. The horse will get both clues and will give precedence to the unconscious one, that makes itself clear with an increase of muscle tension. The trainer should help you spot this contradiction and suggest ways to understand and process your fear. You could do that yourself, too; but it’s a bit like getting yourself under surgery. Not impossible, but particularly challenging.

I even had the idea to suggest music lessons without extra words (if possible, none at all). I already experienced that it’s possible to play music with people I can’t talk with, because we have no common human language: verbal communication only helps when there is a technical quirk to solve quickly. When verbal language is available, it usually takes the lion’s share, and I sense that the actual feeling of playing together suffers from that, as it gets reduced to a technical challenge.

My goal is to use words with as much care as possible, so that they actually support my non-verbal communication instead of replacing it; in parallel, I aim to become more attentive to non-verbal communication of others.