Developing Deep Attention: The Key to True Intimacy
An interview with Edward Hallowell, M.D.
Posted Apr 04, 2017
I am delighted to interview Edward Hallowell, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist and founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Massachusetts, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. A former instructor at Harvard Medical School, he is the author of 20 books including the Best Sellers: Driven to Distraction, Delivered from Distraction, Crazy Busy and, most recently, Driven to Distraction at Work. Dr Hallowell has ADHD himself.
KP: Fifteen years ago, when I adopted my child as a single dad, a dear friend gave me your book, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, which is probably the most important book I’ve read on parenting. It was also a source of inspiration for my book Deeper Dating because of the deep lessons you teach about intimacy.
EH: You’re very kind to say that. In all the books I’ve written, and I have written 20 books, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness is my personal favorite.
KP: Can you say more about why attention matters so much for everyone who cares about the quality of intimacy in their lives?
EH: Well, you can’t have intimacy without attention. This sounds obvious but it’s worth emphasizing because in today’s world attention can’t be taken for granted. We live in the age of distraction; in fact, the defining characteristic of our time is distraction. And you can’t get close to someone if you’re not paying attention to them.
I describe five steps towards true intimacy.
The first step is Attention. And the second step is Time. A moment of attention is not good enough; you have to spread it out over time, so, let’s say not a sound bite but ten minutes. And if you do that, then you get to the third step which is a feeling of Empathy and Understanding, in which you begin to feel what the other person is feeling. That leads to the fourth step which is what I call Connection: a genuine connection. And when you have that, you get the glorious fifth step—which is what I call Playing. Play is the action of love.
But the absolute cornerstone is indeed attention.
Connection is the missing ingredient in so many people’s lives. The beauty of connection is that it’s free, and infinite in supply. The hard part is that people don’t access it nearly as much they ought to.
KP: What are the signs that our relationships are suffering from lack of attention?
EH: Well, the opposite of closeness is indifference; finding you’re not thinking about someone. Or, when you do think about them, you don’t feel much. That’s evidence that you need a dose of connection.
KP: Could you speak about how the quality of attention applies to the courtship process and getting to know someone you're dating?
EH: Well, once again, if you’re not paying attention—and again, it sounds so obvious but it bears stating because it is so often missing—you won’t get anywhere, you won’t get off the ground. Attention is an incredible aphrodisiac. People are so starved for it, they feel turned on just by being paid attention to. If you want a date, pay attention to someone. You don’t have to have a clever pick-up line. You just need to pay attention.
KP: I think that as people do the work you’re describing, we begin to recognize the poignant micro-losses that we have with others when we’re not paying attention.
EH: Micro-losses, that’s a great way of putting it. When you treat someone like a robot, when you treat the person at the checkout counter like a robot, that’s a “micro-loss.” People’s days are full of micro-losses, and wouldn’t it be great to turn them into macro-gains? You’re not going to have a macro-gain at the checkout counter but you could have a micro-gain, so make it happen. Go through your day with these micro-gains, through these moments of connection.
EH: I think that’s the single biggest mistake people make these days; they are so goal-directed, reward-directed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get rich and famous, but on your way there, why don’t you also take advantage of what every kind of research has shown to be the most rewarding part of life: the relationships you make?
EH: Well, like most people, we’re both very busy. So, we really have to intentionally make time to be together. We don’t actually do date nights (although I recommend that.) We don’t have a “ten-o’clock-on-tuesday-make-love-date", (which I also recommend!) A lot of people never make love anymore because they don’t have time. And if that’s your problem, then schedule it in. People say that’s not very romantic, but that’s a lot more romantic than never doing it.
When my wife and I are together, we try to not withdraw into our iPhones, or our newspapers, or to-do lists, and we try just to be there for each other, a little bit each day. To say we have a perfect relationship… Absolutely not! We quarrel and fight and sometimes we don’t even like each other very much. But, we’ve been married for 27 years, and she’s my best friend. I’d be lost without her, and I think she feels the same about me. It’s pretty wonderful what you can have, if you put your mind to it. And what I feel sad about is that people don’t take advantage of it, and as they are getting older, they’re thinking, “What happened, where did the time go?” Don’t wait to get the best of life, take it now.
KP: Do you think that attention reduces impatience? Because you’ve spoken about impatience as a kind of side effect of a rushed life.
EH: Right. When you’re rushing, you can’t pay attention. And when you’re not paying attention, you’re just eager for the next bit of stimulation.
KP: Can you share some practices that you use and that you teach for all of us who are prone to distraction and to losing attention?
EH: Yes, sure. It’s all about taking back control that you’ve given away. We’ve lost all of our boundaries. So, turn off your electronic device, close the door to your office, don’t book your days so full that you don’t have any down time. It’s all about recreating boundaries that you’ve inadvertently given away. And, if you recreate those boundaries, you can then have time to connect and time to do what you find most rewarding.
KP: You’re a world famous author and speaker, a doctor, teacher and the founder of a renowned institute with branches around the country. How do you hold this extraordinary level of accomplishment together with the simplicity of taking time for relationships?
EH: Well, it’s not hard, really—once you create structures, priorities, and boundaries. I really enjoy my life, I have three jobs: I’m a writer, a speaker and a doctor, and I have three children and I have one wife, and I have about a half dozen friends that I keep up with at a very close level. I’ve probably got about a hundred friends but about six that I maintain close regular contact with, and I work out regularly at a gym, and spend a lot of time wasting time watching stupid TV, because that’s how I charge my batteries.
I have a dog that I’m madly in love with and spend plenty of time with. I don’t lead a frantic life, but I do get a lot done. I’ve written a lot of books (I’m working on my 21st and 22nd book right now), and I see a lot of patients. You don’t have to be frantic to get a lot done.
Today, I’m preparing for our office party. Fortunately it’s a nice day so we’re going to have an outdoor BBQ cook-out. I really love the people I work with, and I’m really looking forward seeing them tonight. If you just slow down enough to take back the control that you’ve given away without meaning to, then you can really live the life you want to live.
KP: So a prerequisite to intimacy is a self-honoring; the ability to actually say, “No.”
EH: Yes, learning how to say no without feeling guilty. You just say, “I don’t have time to do that project justice.” You know, you’re really honoring the other person by saying, "I don’t have time to be who you need me to be, for yourself, for your project, for your committee." I made this mistake when I agreed to join a board at a school, and I just wasn’t able to do it right, and they resented me, and I felt guilty. I also joined the vestry of my church and I didn’t have time to do that, and I felt guilty and they resented me. Two painful lessons, so I’ve learned from that.
I have an acronym: CDE. Curtail, Delegate, Eliminate. Curtail when you’ve got too much. Delegate what you don’t like to do, and Eliminate what’s just not worth it.
Once you decide that it is easy, it becomes easy. What gets in your way is emotional, you just think, "Well, I just can’t do that. I can’t say no to that. I have to do this, my boss would hate me if I’m not there 24/7."
No, your boss won’t hate you, and you’ll do better work. You have to give yourself permission to live a sane life; more than a sane life, a joyful life, a connected life, a life full of closeness, intimacy, and joy. Nothing feels better in life than true closeness. And then in a big way, embrace your friends, make time for your friends, make up with someone you’re mad at, reach out when you’re feeling alienated or isolated, so you can live the life you deserve to live.
KP: How has doing this changed your inner world?
EH: Oh my God, it’s so invigorating, I call it the other vitamin C—"vitamin connect"—and it’s more powerful than any medication ever invented. The beauty is that’s free, the sad part is people don’t work at it. It’s there for the taking.
KP: Simple, beautiful, and powerful—thank you so much for sharing with us.
EH: Thanks a million for having me, Ken.
© Ken Page, LCSW 2016. All rights reserved.
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