Improve the Value of Your Attention

I recently wrote about attention as the currency of relationships.  What determines the perceived quality of our attention? How can we improve the value of our attention to family, friends, coworkers and clients? Make the most of the time we have together?

I think there are several dimensions to the quality of our attention.  The core of which came from some works by David Maister and company on defining trust from his book the Trusted Advisor.  I’ve modified and added to this equation.  The elements:

  • Credibility
  • Reliability
  • Character
  • Intimacy
  • Focus

In formula it would look like:

Quality of Attention = (Credibility + Reliability +Character + Intimacy)/Focus

Credibility is about whether or not we should even be in the conversation with someone.  I am rarely credible to strangers I meet through work, but if we are discussing something I am passionate about I quickly gain credibility.

Reliability is about doing what I said I would do and in deeper relationships I should anticipate and being to support people without being told.

Character is about proving your integrity over time, not about being interesting.

Intimacy is about being open like vulnerable trust.  In our personal lives this can be taken further than maybe in our business roles.

And Focus is about who you are focused on.  Are you focused on the other person?  That is positive.  Focus only on yourself and you undermine anything you do in the other categories.

Can you improve your relationships by paying a higher quality attention?

Attention is the Currency of Relationships

“Are you listening to me?” It’s a phrase I don’t like to hear because it means I am not paying attention.  What an interesting phrase paying attention.

We talk about how to get attention from customers and new mediums are creating new positions within companies like Chief Digital Officer. We think about monetizing our customers attention.  So many visits, viewers, uniques, and hours spent paying attention.

In relationship development from bonding with newborns to finding our special someone to rescuing a relationship it is about paying attention. We literally pay for attention in the business world.

But attention is really the currency of relationships.  We pay attention to people and it enriches our relationships.

The higher the perceived quality of attention the greater the value.   The more high quality (as perceived by the receiver) attention we give to someone the stronger our relationship becomes.

In fact we have always paid people for their attention.  I hire people to work with me because I want their attention to help me solve problems and to help my clients solve problems.  People buy art because of the attention the artist put into their product.  A high quality product is often because of the amount and “quality” of attention put into its development, construction, presentation and many other factors.  Our monetary currency is in many ways a to represent attention.

Think for a moment on how much of your attention you give to others?  Are some people willing to pay you for your attention at work?  Do people who really mean something to you get the attention from you they deserve?

When you look at your relationships are you paying enough attention to receive the attention you want in return?

Earn the Right to Answer

“Do you like my new suit?” and “What do you think of my business model?”

Have you earned the right to answer?

We get excited! We race ahead! We think we know! We want to share! We’ve been trained to be good puzzlers and so we want the attention, good feelings and share of the spotlight that comes from having the answer.

I sometimes forget we are all working on our own individual scripts, our unique view of the world. People we are interacting with may not want our answer or may have very different information and outlooks on the question than we do.  They may be working off of a different script and the answer we want to give will make no sense to them and might even annoy them. “Next! Please move along.  Don’t call us we’ll call you!”

So what to do?

First, find out about their script.  What is important to them?  What do they want to have happen next and in the future?  How are they looking for events to unfold?  What would be bad outcomes?

I ask these questions, that I learned form other experts so that we can adjust and tune into the people we want to help.  Then I can adjust our answers to the areas that they care about so that our contributions are additive and actually helpful.

For example imagine meeting a new network contact and they are running a sales organization.  They describe some of the difficulties they are having driving new sales.  What you should not do is tell them how to run the best sales organization in the world using your unique contacts and capabilities.  Even if it is the right answer.

Rather I believe you need to understand the issues faced, plumb the depths of the pressures facing them personally and try to find out what they want to have happen and why.  The why is important and it needs to be both for their company and for them.  So first you need to ask them if you can talk about it.  That’s the first step.

After that the conversation should be easy and focused on them.  You can work on having a trust based discussion and developing a real collaborative understanding.  Then maybe you can put some of your ideas on the table.

I know I struggle with this regularly.  I do it even now.  So I often have to apologize and then say that “I am sorry, I think I am racing ahead, maybe I need more information first” or even, “I don’t know I am right”.  While subtle this give back is important to recover.  But wouldn’t I be more helpful if I could have listened and developed an understanding thereby earning the right to answer first?

It’s all about relationships

 “Very little that is positive is solitary.” -Martin Seligman, Flourish 2011

What we can often forget is the most obvious part of our existence.

How do we get anything done?  As leaders we are often charged with lighting a path providing opportunities for those around us.  This is true whether in software development like my background, or in any other leadership role, even within a family.

So how do we succeed in business and in life?  How do we establish the greatest number of options to help solve problems?  How do we really get things done?  It’s all about relationships. I want to talk about what this means for us in doing business and how to be a better leader as a result.

” Relationships are how energy and information is shared as we connect and communicate with one another. “- Dan Siegel, Mindsight 2010

We are social beings. Unless you have telepathy you are living in your own world in your head watching your own picture show of reality as you see it.  As social beings we are wired to communicate with others to relieve that isolation as part of creating well being for ourselves and others.  The currency of relationships is attention: the information, energy and focus we give to others and need from others. We use that currency to get things done in our social world each day and to define our reality.

 “Words and ideas are examples of units of information we use to communicate with one another.”  – Daniel Siegel, Mindsight 2010

We need to learn how to build a network that supports and sustains us. It is something that goes beyond the moment, beyond the job and beyond a given company.  Our network of relationships is part of who we are as human beings. It is up to each of us to learn this truth and to spend the time and attention to nourish those relationships.

We get things done through relationships.  I am cursed by a generational tendency to own a responsibility to work to solve things by myself. “I got it boss! You can count on me!”.  While I can do a lot of independent work, I never really do it myself. In fact, everything I ever get done is done because of my relationships. I may lead an initiative, but I am always marshaling resources available from my relationships to actually get work done. Yet we often lose sight of this simple fact because the bonds of our relationships are invisible and as such are often out of mind.

Look around where ever you are at the moment.  Everything you see within your view has been affected by relationships and in many cases exists only because of relationships between people.  Do you live in a community, a village, a city?  Do you belong to groups or affiliations?  Do you live in a house or an office building?   What about the medium that allows you to read what I have written? All of this has been built and created by relationships.  Some of those relationships might have been transactional and some likely deeply personal.

Positive relationships are something we need as people in order to create well being.  Cited in multiple publications and research studies positive relationships are a foundation for happiness and well being.  Our best moments are often those shared with others personally and professionally.  Deep fulfilling business relationships give us the ability to work through the best and worst of times as leaders.  They are better than the best strategy and tactics, better than the latest research paper and a more important resource for success than even an ever full bucket of gold. Strong positive business relationships fulfill us as social beings and enable us to truly get things done that make a difference.

Amazingly building strong relationships is not taught in our schools. Our most important survival mechanism and success mechanism is not part of a curriculum.  We assume that we will learn the skills necessary to build strong relationships, by living our lives with other people.  However, we all know that even with the best manners, schooling, social upbringing and advantages, some people still need help developing the skills to build strong relationships. How many people do you know look at networking as some sort of strange activity, rather than a chance to build strong relationships for mutual success?

I know I am still learning at age 44 how to be better at building strong positive relationships. I spent my early years passing the gauntlet of primary and secondary education, learning technical skills followed by establishing myself as an independent and capable person.  I had friends and still do, but I didn’t know what that meant to me in a business setting.  Could I have real friends at work?  I once thought business and personal life needed to be separate in some un-definable way. I always found this thinking conflicted with how I felt and acted. Well the way I would like to think I acted.

We abhor silos in organizations for the problems they create, no less the silos in our life.  We live one life.  Why not apply the things we learn to our whole selves?  I am not telling you to invite everyone from work over for every family member’s birthday party every year mind you. That’s over the top and likely won’t build relationships. Rather we need to understand that relationship development and nurturing are skills that are about who we are as people, not just as business people.

Look around you today and think about the amount of attention you give and you get.  Not to create a balance sheet, but to understand you receive back from what you give and to assess how much attention are you giving to nourish your relationships.  The more people you can serve well with your attention the more quality relationships you will build in your network.  If you are really vigilant and value the people in your relationship network, the returns will come by themselves.  We are wired to reciprocate with each other.  Done selflessly for the good of others, you will receive back more opportunities to assist you and those in your network than what you give out.  It compounds like interest over time.  When you experience this you will realize it is all about relationships.


  • Friends, colleagues and clients…
  • Siegle, D.J. – M.D. (2010) Mindsight:The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books
  • Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish New York, NY: Free Press
  • Rodriquez, Don Miguel (1997) The Four Agreements. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing
  • Diener, E. and Biswas-Diener R.– (2008) Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Hoboken, NJ:Wiley-Blackwell
  • Ben Shahar, T. (2007) – Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment . New York, NY: McGraw-Hill


Want a better relationship with your clients?

Then you need to improve your Service Relationship Level!

I recently published a small article on building your trustworthiness.  This is based largely on the readings and then trying to use the readings I had from several great sources.  I have been growing new skills in the areas of business development.  One of the critical ideas shared not only from Maister and Green in Trusted Advisor and Sheth and Sobel in Clients for life, but also through Bill Bartlett owner of Corporate Strategies and Solutions teaching the Sandler method, was the concept of the service relationship level.  It describes what level of service people will actually “buy” from you and how they behave towards you.

You start at a level. You build trust following the concepts like those in Improving your Personal Trustworthiness and by the way you behave and what your client needs, you can move up, or down, a scale that reflects trust and the level of interdependency with your client.  We all have clients at work.  This is not limited to business development with external clients.  I want to share some of these concepts as they are fundamental to understanding service relationships.  I contend most IT teams exist to provide services within companies or to customers, and therefore I see this as widely relevant.


Figure 1: Service Relationship Model


At the bottom of the pyramid is the vendor relationship.  You are a commodity. Here you are selection E5 right next to E4 in the snack machine.  You compete on price.  Quality must be passable, but when people evaluate your nearest competitor they are think you are the same and which service can I get cheaper.

Problem Solver

The problem solver is someone who is known for solving a specific problem.  When you have that problem you are happy to have them around, but when you don’t have that problem you don’t think about them.  Price is less of an issue than quickly making the problem go away.  Imagine you are a newly hired and talented IT professional who solves a requirements gathering problem for a new team.  You will be known as that person even though your real experience is over 10 years in resolving complex service delivery issues for CIO’s.  People will not seek you out for your other skills until you change you behavior.  More on that later.


The consultant is someone who is revered for their thinking across problems.  They tend to ask more why questions and facilitating learning and discussion rather than being the expert with the right answer all the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem solver, but rather that they are viewed by their client as someone whose thinking across topics helps them to solve problems.  Most service groups would love to be considered consultants.  They are worth more than problem solvers or vendors.


This is a level of relationship where your client is actually concerned about your business success as well as their own.  Your mutual success is important to both of you.  They provide references, they coach you, and they fight for you internally.  Not necessarily because it’s the right thing to do, or because they have personally taken a shine to you as an individual, but because the perception and performance of you as partners is viewed by others as indivisible. Many relationships will seem like this, but few actually reach this level.

Trusted Partner

Whole books have been written about it.  My favorite example is from a friend, Bob Zimmerman, “You walk in the door and before you can say high, your partner says ‘shut the door and sit down. I have got to talk to you.’ and it doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with business”.  Maister refers to this as the pinnacle of “romance”.  In Clients for life, it is about reaching a breakthrough relationship.  At the end of the day this becomes a deeply personal and caring relationship between both parties.  The amount of trust extended, success and risks overcome are significant for the most durable Trusted Partner relationships.

Can I jump a level?

I’ve asked and I am asked, can you move up or jump a level of relationship.  Yes, up and down is the answer. But it depends on both you and the other person. On your part, you need to act differently. On their part, they need to see you differently and then accept the changes and treat you differently.  You can’t control this by yourself, because it is a relationship.

If someone who is already high on the relationship scale introduces you and speaks on your behalf, you can start at a high level.  After that it is up to you.  Ever wonder why referrals are so valuable?

So how do I grow in the relationship?

You need to change first.  You need to be able to build personal trust.  You need to overcome organizational trust dysfunctions.  You need to behave differently.  And there is a lot to this, but let’s look at just a few things and leave the in depth recount to the aforementioned published experts.

First, you need to make your interactions about the client, not about you. If you need something, you need to expose your intentions clearly. This is probably the hardest thing to think through, as it is hard to shut down our inner voices, focus and then listen actively to other people.

Second, you need to understand who you are dealing with and what they care about. From a high level, say interactions within an IT department for example, here are some concepts based on a typical hierarchical organization.  You create your own map based on who your customers are to see if it helps you to walk a little in their shoes.  This is all part of building understanding and empathy for your client’s situation, so you can behave differently by thinking differently to help build insight into their challenges.

Figure 2: Responsibilities and Concerns within a Hierarchical IT Structure

Spending time in a larger IT organization trying to convince the CIO to buy certain developer tools that offer new code check in procedures is likely to frustrate you both.  So prepare for what they care about, understand them and you will be on better footing to relate and understand the issues they are facing.

Third, you need to act like the level you wish to become.  Each level up can grow on elements of the one below.  However, if you have a partnership and then begin to argue price as the sole determinant of continuing the relationship, you can drop quickly by behaving incorrectly.

  • If you want to be a vendor worry about price and talk about features until you are blue in the face. But if that is your go to market strategy, make the most of it when you have the chance as you can win business. It will be focused mostly on a transaction at a time, unless you can get long term commitments from your bidding.
  • If you want to be a problem solver, be an expert, and offer your opinion and what you see as the obvious solution to the problem. This roles has real value in the right situations.  But balance it against where you want to be in your relationship.
  • If you want to be a consultant, ask why, again and again until you feel you get to really understand the problems.  In addition as a consultant, it is better to explore problems collaboratively, than to take the reins and try to drive the discussion like an expert.  Your insight begins to set you apart.
  • Partners are looking at the business situation together and collaboratively resolving issues with an understanding of what that means for the other.  Mutual sacrifice to preserve the partnership and help it grow is not uncommon.
  • A trusted Advisor worries as much about the person as the professional elements and has earned the right to do so.

Figure 3: Service  Relationship Level Attributes


So when you look at your customers, external and internal, can you see them differently?  I know I have and it has allowed me to focus on the value of relationships to a far greater extent.  I have become better at listening and thinking not so much about the problem as I was trained to do for years, but what the impact would be professionally and personally to my clients. It’s still up to you and me to do the work, but once you understand where your relationships are really at on the pyramid, then you can work to make the changes to improve them.

Credits and References

  • Friends, colleagues, clients and …
  • Bill Bartlett – Owner Corporate Strategies and Solutions,
  • Bob Zimmerman,
  • Green C. H. & Howe A. P. (2012). The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
  • Maister D., Green C.H. & Galford R.M. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. New York, NY: Free Press
  • J. Sheth & A. Sobel – (2000). Clients for Life. Evolving from an Expert for Hire to an Extraordinary Advisor. New York, NY:  Simon and Schuster