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Accountability as Shared Attention

Think outside the punishments! Shared attention is the most powerful (and pleasant) form of accountability.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
2 min read

Colloquially, “accountability” is a euphemism for “punishment.”

Without “accountability” - the credible threat of punishment - some person or group can’t possibly be expected to do what they ought to do… right? Systems without “accountability” fall into disarray, for lack of punishments.

Many clients like coaching because it provides “accountability,” and approach me specifically looking for some. However, we both know that I can’t exactly reach through Zoom and hit my client, though, or take money from their pocket (unless they’re using Stickk).

Coaching costs good money, so there is a built-in punishment: sessions could move towards new topics if the client does their “homework” promptly the first time. But this accountability-as-punishment turns out to be rather thin.

I don’t take naturally to a taskmaster or drill sergeant role. So, when accountability-seeking clients sometimes failed to meet the goals they’d chosen with me, I didn’t like… yell at them or perform disappointment.

Sometimes there was a good reason that the goal was missed, other times not so much. I’d simply ask my client if they wanted to stick with the same goal, perhaps approached with a different strategy, or revise the goal, or abandon it. I’d ask if they wanted me to follow up aggressively, or not so much.

As developmental psychologists have stressed, humans are built to function best in supportive social environments featuring safe, reliable, intelligible attention.

Immediately following birth, you (hopefully) entered a warm holding environment of a capable (if imperfect) caregiver. You didn’t just look at your caregiver - increasingly, the two of you looked out at something else in tandem: a toy, a book. One of you would point and beckon the other to “look.” Gradually, your - the baby’s - busy environment started to make sense.

As we grow, we rely less heavily on the scaffold of caregiver attention to do our daily stuff. But the potential for receiving this kind of support never goes away!

One-on-one attention is what makes academic tutoring so powerful. Private music and sports lessons are the bread and butter of rich kids’ upbringing for a reason. Professionals who are lucky enough to find good mentors stand on their shoulders for the rest of their careers.

My coaching clients may think they want the “accountability” of punishments, but I pull a bit of a bait and switch. What they mostly actually receive is the accountability of shared attention.

Shared attention is less legible and dramatic than punishments, and so a bit of a harder sell. Something with teeth may seem more clearly “worth it,” ex ante. But shared attention is more flexible and comfortable, as well as being equally (if not more) effective as compared to simple punishment - especially in the long term.

Come and try my intro session if you’re curious about what the power of shared attention accountability can do for you.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.