Attending to Salience
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley
For awhile now we have been self-modelling what we pay attention to in a client session that: (1) guides our line of questioning, and (2) gives the session its sense of directional flow. We call this process:
Attending to / selecting for / sorting for
salience /significance / importance / relevance / what is fundamental.
Before reading our thoughts, we ask you to consider:
What are you calibrating in your client's response to:
- Your question and behaviour
- Their interior world
- External in-the-moment events
that guides where you direct their attention?
Below we provide a few definitions and ideas about salience and how it relates to facilitation.Definitions of Salience
The Oxford American Dictionary
gives the following definitions:
Salient (from Latin salire, 'leaping')
- most noticeable or important
- jutting or pointing outward
Significant (from Latin significare, 'indicate, portend')
- the quality of being worthy of attention; importance
Important (from Latin important, 'being of consequence')
- the state or fact of being of great significance or value
Relevant (from Latin relevare, 'raising up')
- closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand
- forming a necessary base or core; of central importance
- affecting or relating to the essential nature of something
- the crucial point about an issue
Other words which have a similar meaning:
import, consequence, gravity, weight, magnitude, momentousness
meaning, sense, signification, thrust, drift, gist, message, essence, substance
pertinent, applicable, apposite, material, apropos, to the point, germane; connected
basic, underlying, core, foundational, rudimentary, elemental, elementary, basal, root; primary, prime, cardinal, first, principal, chief, key, central, vital, essential, important, indispensable, necessary, crucial, pivotal, critical; structural, organic, constitutional, inherent, intrinsic.
Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality uses levels to distinguish between 'significant' and 'fundamental': the higher the level the more significant; the lower the level, the more fundamental: "More significant ... because more of the universe is reflected or embraced in that particular wholeness ... More fundamental, because everything above it depends upon it for its existence" (p. 63). Signal-to-noise ratio
While we like this distinction, we are less interested in the differences between the definitions, and more interested in what they are all pointing to. They all say that some aspects of an event, interaction or conversation stand out as worthy of attention because they have more meaning, consequence or significance. 'Attending to salience' is our catch-all phrase for a variety of processes that enable someone to recognise significance, importance, relevance and what is fundamental in themselves or others. We chose 'salience' since it has an equivalent meaning in studies of perception and neurology, and because it is less commonly used than the other words; and 'attending to' because it captures the relational nature of the perceiver and perceived in the process of becoming aware.
A related concept is the signal-to-noise ratio. This is an electrical engineering term which compares the level of a desired signal (such as music) to the level of background noise (such as hiss). The higher the ratio, the less obtrusive is the background noise. Informally, 'signal-to-noise ratio' refers to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data. Wikipedia, for example, recognised that its signal (useful information) can get lost in the noise (tittle-tattle, misinformation) so it now allocates particular users to 'moderate' content as a way of amplifying the signal and removing noise.Neurological signals of salience
In In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind
(2007) Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist Eric R. Kandel explains that neurological "signals of salience" are required for the brain to function and are intimately connected to "attention" - but in two different ways. Because signals of salience do not exist 'out there' independent of our mind, we need our memory to tell us what is salient and therefore what to pay attention to. And, a key factor in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory is whether a signal of salience is perceived consciously or not. (For more on this topic see our article The Neurobiology of Space
There is a systemic chicken and egg loop operating here. Signals of salience get our attention and are needed in the conversion to long-term memory. But how did we know something was salient? Because it was already in our memory! This is typical of the bottom-up, itterative and emergent way the brain learns and operates.How do clients signal salience?
To indicate the extraordinary, a client has to make it stand out from the mundane. This is usually done at varying degrees below awareness. Clients commonly signal salience by:
They can also send a salience signal by switching from an established pattern, e.g. they:
- Show unusual affect (external signs of emotion)
- Suddenly become very still - or vice versa
- Switch from regularly using one representational system (what we call a metaphor for a means of perceiving)
- Switch to a new type of language: sensory, conceptual, symbolic
- Shift to a different level (e.g. go meta, or move to a pattern level after lots of detail - or vice versa )
- Shift to an apparent irrelevance (which can suggest that what happened just before was very relevant!).
And a third method is through logical inference:
- Related to their desired outcome
- A gap in the logic (e.g. in a sequence)
- Strange or ill-defined causal relationships between things ('illogical' logic)
- Multiple indirect pointing to something
- Logical consequence.
The presence of salience is a higher-level form of what Gregory Bateson called "news of difference". Previously we have examined Maximising Serendipity
and 'signals for potential'. To our mind these signals are one way the facilitator knows what is potentially
salient and therefore where to direct the client's attention.
Kandel suggests attending to salient features is "a determining factor in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory." From this we infer that inviting clients to voluntarily attend to, and maintain attention on, salient features is a way of encouraging changes that happen in the session to become long-term memories. These are then available to be involuntarily (i.e. unconsciously) "recruited" when needed in the future.
Different therapies have different ideas about what constitutes 'salience'. In almost all cases these are pre-determined from the therapist viewpoint. TA has ego states, games and drivers. NLP plumps for internal representations, strategies, linguistic patterns and Well-formed Outcomes. Symbolic Modelling values metaphors, idiosyncrasies and binding patterns.
However, in the noise generated by the therapist's own model of the world, salience - from the viewpoint of client's whole system - can be undervalued.Non-recognition of salience
Kandel points out that some important stimuli are not automatically perceived as salient. We have noticed that, commonly, the following events and processes do not automatically recruit voluntary attention:
In the beginning many clients (and groups) are unable to distinguish salient signals from the noise of their habitual story for a number of reasons:
- Unwittingly they are continually creating noise (feelings, sounds, words, images, and thoughts) that 'mask' other signals
- They are captivated by the detail and so can't see the patterns
- They are seduced by the sensational (see Black Swan Logic: Thinking outside the Norm)
- They don't know what to look for or how to go about it finding it
- They mislabel the subtle signals of salience
- Their internal signals are often drowned out by their perception of the scale of external dramas or to more pressing internal signals (e.g. strong emotions and urges, big bright fast moving images, loud internal dialogue, etc.)
This suggests another role for us as Symbolic Modelling facilitators. We can pay attention to what the client finds salient and honour or "bless" that, and at the same time we can direct attention to salience that the client pays scant attention to. However to stay clean our judgement needs to be sourced in, or be on behalf of, the client's whole system
. To do so we must first recognise the patterns of what the client does pay attention to (see PPRC: Paying attention to what they're paying attention to
There is (in the Western cultures, at least) what David Grove called "a forward motif" to our language, storytelling and the way we perceive events. This can prevent us from perceiving salience if we do not attend to something long enough to get beyond the obvious, to get beyond the surface meaning. From David Grove we learned that, as facilitators, one of our most important 'tools' is to be able to “hold time still” and so increase the "dwell time". That is, to identify something salient in the client’s information and to stay put
long enough for some deeper import to emerge. (See Vectoring and Systemic Outcome Orientation
It is like facilitating the client to snorkel across interior time and space until something potentially salient emerges - then to scuba dive to that place, attend to what is salient, and find out ... what happens next.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.