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Attention training: how to save your relationships

Our attention, by nature, pushes us to focus more on the negative than on the positive.

Research by psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that, in interactions with others, we pay more attention to what we don't like or what the person did wrong, instead of on what the person did well and what we actually like about them.

You could say that we are naturally hardwired to notice the negatives. Why? It’s a pure survival instinct allowing us to be ready to fight or flee from danger.

Negative thinking

There are people who are more prone to focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of their life and environment, neglecting the positives. This ultimately has an impact on how you feel, what you get out of life and how you behave.

When we only see others and situations through a negative lens, we develop a sort of tunnel vision where we confirm the negative aspects and neglect to consider a person or situation in their entirety. This is called negative confirmation bias.

Failing to focus on the positive can also prevent a person from taking action, being open to change, or connecting to others and their values.

Jumping to conclusions

Although we like to think our beliefs are objective and rational, the truth is that our conclusions are often based on seeking and remembering information that confirms our expectations.

In other words, we pay attention to information that supports our past conclusions.

This innate tendency finds its roots in our survival instinct to respond rapidly to situations; in the need to simplify a reality that is too complex to process; and in the need to connect to others, like being part of a group.

Negative confirmation bias harms relationships

It’s unfortunate that this tendency, called confirmation bias, can also backfire and negatively influence the decisions we take, as we may ignore information that would dispute our expectations.

Let’s take an example: you meet somebody who is particularly assertive but, consciously or unconsciously, you see this trait as being arrogant. For this very reason you avoid all assertive people because they make you feel angry or uncomfortable.

You end up finding reasons to confirm that the person in indeed arrogant (negative confirmation bias) and avoid keeping an open attitude to get to know them better. In this way you are more likely to burn relationships instead of building them, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Focus on the positive

Aristotle used to say, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". That’s good news. It means we are not victims of our attention!

We have the ability to purposely control our attention and divert it to something more positive. This in turn influences our behaviour so we can take better decisions and have a more satisfying social life.

That’s not to say we can control what captures our attention but, through awareness, we can redirect it.

Train your brain

The process of purposefully rewiring certain pathways in your brain to create new habits, like paying attention to positive aspects in others and ourselves, is called "attention training".

Attention training activities

It is proven that it takes seven days to create a habit by repeating activities, but they can dissipate just as quickly. That’s why commitment and repetition are essential to consolidate them. Here are five activities to train your attention:

1. Set your values

Values are chosen directions to help orient your behaviour. They give a sense of purpose, help overcome adversity and pick you up after a setback.

Values are like a compass that guides daily attention to pursue actions, take coherent decisions and stay focused on what counts most in life.

2. Look for the silver lining

As every cloud has a silver lining, some of the worst circumstances we experience can still hold positive aspects.

Sometimes the positive aspects are small, but other times we gain more from such difficult experiences. These could be new friends, personal growth, or freedom from an unhealthy relationship. Take the chance to analyse the situation objectively and observe what you gained from it.

3. Choose to see positives in others

When you meet a person who hits a nerve, search and find something that you actually like about them, something you approve, admire or are inspired by. You may find yourself becoming more open and more connected to that person, instead of engaging in behaviour that could potentially harm a relationship.

4. Develop positive "go-to" thoughts

When your mind starts wandering into negativity, turn to thoughts that allow you to refocus your attention on what makes you feel good, such as a person, a place or a holiday.

Redirecting your attention to these positive fixtures will trigger good feelings, and will help you engage in better behaviours and in taking more objective decisions.

5. Practice gratitude

Gratitude is cultivated by paying attention to life in a special way. That is, giving attention to what has happened to you and what you are thankful for.

Creating a checklist can help, but you also need to think of the reasons why you feel grateful for positive events that occur in your life. It ultimately leads to feeling more optimistic and more satisfied with life.

Think positive!

Over time, positive thinking will ultimately help to broaden your thinking, build resilience to help you bounce back from stress, increase your overall well-being, lessen the effects of intense negative emotions and improve the quality of your relationships.

Melania

Author

Melania Zampieri

I am a licensed psychologist and support internationals living in the Netherlands. I run my private practice in Utrecht, in Amsterdam and on Skype both for English and Italian speakers...

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