Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

By Brent G. Richardson, Assistant Professor,
Department of Education

In my classes, I sometimes ask for a volunteer to try the following experiment:

I ask them to close their eyes.  I tell them that when they open their eyes, they will have fifteen seconds to try to memorize everything in the room that is grey.  After fifteen seconds, I have them close their eyes again.  Now, I ask them to tell the class everything around them that is green.  They will probably have difficulty remembering many green items.

Lessons learned long ago from Pavlov's dog and Skinner's box about the potency of positive reinforcement sometimes get lost in the shuffle with educators and other helping professionals.  It is easy to become so focused on what is grey and drab, we neglect what is green and alive.  We become so focused on problem behaviors and perceived weaknesses, we neglect to recognize and build on strengths.  After I graduated from college in 1985, I took a job at a special education school living in a double trailer with twelve teenage boys diagnosed with ?severe emotional disturbance and learning disabilities.?  During that first year as a residential counselor, I began to learn the importance of paying attention to what I pay attention to.

I found myself becoming more and more angered and frustrated by a kid named Scott.  Nothing he did was right.   I did not like the way Scott talked, walked, or breathed.  Truthfully, I did not like Scott.  My supervisor, asked me to try the ?Penny Transfer Technique.?  It was really quite simple - the most memorable lessons often are.  He asked me to start the day by putting five pennies in my left pocket.  I was instructed to move a penny to my right pocket every time  I commented on something Scott did right. I was also instructed to avoid phony or superficial affirmations (i.e., I like your clothes).   My goal was to move all the pennies to the right pocket by the end of the day.  I did this for one week.  Although it felt somewhat contrived, two things began to happen. First, my relationship with Scott improved dramatically.  Second, I began to automatically notice things Scott did right.  Since that time, I have successfully used the Penny Transfer Technique to shift my focus and enhance my relationships with challenging students or my own children.  A number of educators have also reported a ?successful shift? after trying this strategy.

In my Cross Cultural Counseling classes, the students are required to complete two ?Interaction Plans? in which they conduct personal interviews, attend community meetings, attend social or political functions, etc. with persons who are culturally different from themselves.  One semester, several students chose to interview Reverend Damon Lynch III, a prominent African-American community leader in Over the Rhine.  During their interview, the students learned that this valuable lesson should also be applied to communities as well as individuals.  What follows are excerpts from one of those student's paper eloquently processing her experience.  

...We discussed many times what we were going to ask Reverend Lynch.  We wrote out questions we had thought of and felt we were pretty prepared for our interview.  We each introduced ourselves and discussed our Multicultural Counseling class and the nature of our assignment.?We indicated that we hoped he would be able to give us a better understanding of the basic needs and concerns of this community?.

Reverend Lynch paused reflectively then slowly began to explain that he did not want to talk about needs and concerns of the community; neither did he think it was a good place for us to start.  He said he did not want to "label the community as deficient, and that's what has happened too long in communities like this.  We would be labeling if we started there.?

He explained that "this is a rich community.  It is rich with the resources, assets, people with gifts, institutions, and businesses.  As a matter of fact, this is one of the richest communities in Cincinnati.  There is no other community in the city that holds the promise that this community holds.  When we talk about our children, we talk about the resource and the assets that they are, and the gifts they have.  We need to spend some time on the focus that if the community is going to change, it is going to start with the strengths that we have."

He used the analogy of the glass that is half filled with water.  "Is it half full or half empty?" he asked.  In our attempt to show our optimism we answered that the glass was half full.  He replied, "No actually, it is both, but, if you are going to rebuild the community with this cup, it is obvious that you need to start with what is half full.  Traditionally, in communities like this, people start with the part that is half empty.  I am just saying this to caution you two that when you go somewhere else to speak, instead of asking about their deficiencies, it would be better to ask about their strengths.

Needless to say, I felt I had just been to church, and learned a good lesson.  I then felt all of the questions we had prepared were totally useless and inappropriate.  We had a few minutes of silence.  Then we rephrased our questions. "Reverend Lynch, could you please tell us about the strengths of the community?"

(Reverend Lynch talked at length about specific strengths of the community).

...I started this experience thinking that I was empathic enough to the needs of the Over the Rhine community.  I ended it with the realization that I have a lot to learn.  I started the interview with the need to have someone confirm my concerns and beliefs about the community.  Instead I was left exposed and ashamed by how stereotypical I was.  I was embarrassed by my inability to perceive the positive aspects of the community.  It is as if those of us who are privileged majority cannot perceive the possibility of positive life outside our mode.  We have a lot to learn.

This student should be commended for her willingness to entertain new ways of being and seeing.  She should also be applauded for learning from her experiences.  Too often, we opt for defending our own perceptions of the world at the expense of personal and professional growth.  I know I do.  Reverend Lynch identified a common trap that many of us fall into, particularly when working with racial minority groups: rushing in and focusing on perceived individual, family, or community weaknesses rather than recognizing and building on existing strengths and potential.  This is a difficult paradigm shift to make because the majority of counseling and helping approaches are deficit-oriented, focusing on what is supposedly wrong with clients or systems.  Nevertheless, shifting the focus helps us to see students and their problems in a new light and open the door to new possibilities.   While this lesson was originally written to help counselors and counseling students critically assess their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regarding the populations they serve, I believe that the underlying theme is generalizable to all humanity.

?Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention to was adapted from the author's book Working with Challenging Youth: Lessons Learned Along the Way (2001).


Dr. Brent Richardson is an assistant professor in the department of education graduate counseling program.

Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.

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