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Observation skills: How to improve them (starring a clown, a gorilla and some scientists)

Normally we begin these guides with a series of statistics related to the topic, but when discussing observation skills, statistics don’t even do it justice. Instead, something common from the mouths of parents and caregivers might work: “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.” The implication is that you should listen roughly twice as much as you speak, although we know from general life observation that’s not true of most people. 

Listening is a factor in observation skills, of course, but it’s bigger than that. Observation skills are about realizing what’s happening around you and fitting everything into a framework, which has a lot of value in both work and life. If you work in lead generation, or any area where you need to create new business, observation skills are crucial -- when you interact with potential prospects, what are you observing? What are you learning about them? Which of these pieces of information could be useful to create a partnership? 

There are dozens more examples at work. In non-work life, it’s crucial for functioning within relationships (knowing what your partner is going through), friendships (ditto), and even large crowds of people (when those types of events resume).

But we know that listening and observation skills often feel like they’re at a premium, or only existing in a small fraction of humanity. So how could we all get better at observation skills? Here are a few lessons.

Table of contents

Go watch 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men, a 1957 film considered to be among the best ever made, is about 12 male jurors debating over the guilt or innocence of an 18 year-old defendant. The movie is famous because it explores many techniques of consensus-building and the difficulties encountered in the process among this group of men whose range of personalities adds to the intensity and conflict. It also explores the power one person has to elicit change. The jury members are identified only by number; no names are revealed until an exchange of dialogue at the very end. The film forces the characters and audience to evaluate their own self-image through observing the personality, experiences, and actions of the jurors. 

Juror No. 8 is played by Henry Fonda in the film. When the film begins, the other 11 jurors all believe the 18 year-old is guilty; Juror No. 8 is the only “innocent” holdout. Juror Eight notes details about the murder case in question that others have missed. Slowly the rest of the jury is won around as their reservations are overcome and they become convinced that minutiae point towards flaws in the evidence against the accused.

“The role model for good critical observation is Juror Number Eight — Henry Fonda — in the film 12 Angry Men,” says Stefan Stern, visiting professor in management practice at London’s Cass Business School. “Fonda's character refuses to accept the view of the other 11 jurors that the accused is obviously guilty.”

Stern continues: “It takes time and energy. Question what you are being told, dig deeper than surface-level impressions. Do not accept conventional wisdom or the myths and rumours which tend to circulate in businesses and organisations.”

Watch the film and look at what Fonda’s character does -- how does he pull out pieces of evidence, and how does he communicate his findings and beliefs to the other jurors? What has he noticed that other jurors seem to have not noticed? It’s a powerful lesson in observation skills.

How to improve observational skills: Practice removing distractions

While we mostly adore technology, we understand the perils of it in a work context too. It’s very distraction-heavy and there are numerous ways someone can get in touch with you and derail what you’re working on. If you’re constantly in reactive mode around pings and instant messages, you won’t observe much -- rather, you’ll just become a task jockey above all else. 

We see this borne out in marketing too: in the 1980s, marketers needed to get in front of a prospect 6-8 times to be successful. Now it’s considered 20+ times, and a lot of that comes from reduced attention spans. While the attention span science is mixed on whether or not attention span has actually declined in the last two generations, we definitely do know that there’s more ways for someone to be distracted, and that cuts into observation skills and general attention.

If you start thinking and researching the neuroscience and biology of how we pay attention, you realize that the goal is to need to retrain your brain to pay attention to what's important at that moment. Dr. Daniel Simons frames this up in the context of the entertainment industry:

So script supervisors, the people who work on movie sets, know how to look for particular kinds of mistakes that might end up into a movie that would be noticed. And they look for specifically those - and they ignore the other stuff that's never going to matter, or the stuff that's never going to end up across a cut.

What they know, that most people don't, is that their memory is lousy, that they can't rely on their memory. And they know to take all sorts of notes and keep careful track of the things that are likely to matter.

One way to handle this and train your brain is to block out uninterrupted work time on your calendar, or set aside an entire day where you just focus on bigger-picture issues and turn off connective devices, don’t check email, etc. It can be hard if you’re mostly a reactive, task-driven person -- but it’s important to focus more deeply and observe what’s around you. If your organization goes to a hybrid model in 2021 and 2022, use some of your work-from-home days to focus more deeply and also … 

Ways to practice observation skills

If you choose a focus day approach, and you’re not going into an office, consider doing some of these things either over lunch, in the morning, or throughout the day to refocus and retrain your cognitive abilities:

  • Take a walk. That’s it: The husband and wife team behind the company Bluemercury takes a walk together every night, and those walks powered the company to $100M+ in revenue. It’s just a way to reflect, observe, discuss, ruminate, etc.
  • Field Notes: As you walk, take Field Notes like a scientist might. Write down everything you see and observe. Make guesses as to how different pieces fit together. Turn off your brain except for your observation skills. Just be, and observe. 
  • Assign yourself a scavenger hunt: Pick something and look for it throughout your day. This could be anything, broken windows, security cameras, or a particular graffiti artist. Find it, take a picture, or note it. Look for more. When you're done, try to figure out why that stuff is there.
  • 365 Day Photo Challenge: This trains you to look at things around you differently, and frame them differently, akin to a professional photographer. These are popular with hobbyists, aspiring photographers, and Instagrammers.
  • Soundwalk: These are less common, but they do exist. A soundwalk is where you look for the origin of sounds in a given area. It trains you to think about place differently and practice observation skills more. 
  • Mindfulness: There’s a whole app economy around mindfulness right now, and if you use some of those tools -- or try one of our personalized coaching programs -- it can train you to slow down and look outwards. 
  • Try new things: Something that isn’t familiar requires a more acute sense of attention. A few years ago, someone at F4S was in Belgium and tried an exotic cooking class with ingredients he barely knew existed in the world. As a result, virtually every second of the class was heightened awareness -- and to this day, he could describe the butter package they were using. Get out of your comfort zone and you’ll flex observation skills more. 
  • Play a memory game: Describe a photograph, or list everything in the room you're in right now without looking.
  • Try out the Monkey Business Illusion: Can you count how many times the players wearing white pass the ball?
  • Learn more about brain science: This guide from MIT is a good start. If you don’t know how exactly your brain is working -- not necessarily at a doctoral level, but basically -- then it’s very hard to know what to do to train it for better observation skills.

And with that: a clown on a unicycle

Here is a clown on an unicycle:


Relatively novel concept, eh? If you saw this on the street or in your neighborhood, you would likely react, wouldn’t you? Well, Western Washington University did a study about this, and just 25 percent of people talking on their cell phones saw the unicycling clown, whereas more than half of people walking alone, people listening to portable music players and people walking in pairs saw the clown. Shockingly, there were virtually no situations where 100% saw the clown. 

In 1992, Arien Mack and Irvin Rock, two researchers at MIT, coined the term inattentional blindness to describe this phenomenon. Inattentional blindness is the failure to notice a fully visible but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.

And this makes sense: to cope with the sensory overload problem, we develop filters. Filtering helps the brain deal with all the stimuli and information that bombards it. Our changing culture, values, and beliefs shape our filters and influence how and what we notice, and how we react. 

Filters help focus our attention on a single task or part of the environment and ignore everything else. What we filter in or filter out depends on where we put our attention. Even though the brain can scan 30 to 40 pieces of information (e.g., sights, sounds, smells) per second, its limited resources mean that most of it is immediately forgotten. This prevents us from becoming overwhelmed.

This is what we mean by understanding some of the brain science tied to observation skills. If you know what your filters are and can gradually tweak some of your filters or be more conscious about what’s around you day-in and day-out, you can develop better observation skills and quite likely become a better employee and friend.

How to improve observation skills: Reaction vs. response

A lot of this discussion does come back to reaction vs. response, which is a very important issue at work as well.

The difference: “Reaction” tends to be quicker. It can almost make the recipient feel on the defensive. “Response” tends to be thoughtful and contain reasoning. Here’s a good primer. “Reaction” is more instinctual and tied to our “reptilian” brain; “response” is a bit more evolved and tied to our developed brain.

You need stronger observation skills, generally, to “respond” to work issues. Reaction does not require tremendous observation skills. 

In this Tim Ferriss-Tony Robbins podcast, Robbins has a good line in there about business culture.

Here’s the set up: once you move past 2-3 employees, the law of averages is not on your side. If you have 10 employees, there’s a good chance that, at some point in the day, someone will screw something up. If you have 20, there’s a bigger chance. What if you have 10,000? 75,000? There’s a chance something is being screwed up at every second.

You’ve got two choices in this situation: “reaction” — hair-on-fire screeching about everything — or “response,” where you realize problems will happen and you deal with things thoughtfully as they arise.

In order to be a manager (or even an employee) that can contextualize failure in a “response” manner, you need observation skills, because you need to be able to see both the minute details of what happened and the bigger picture as well. That’s how to build observation skills. That’s observation and listening. If you are a more reactionary employee or manager, you will respond to the initial set of stimuli above all. Long-term, that doesn’t improve conditions and may foster more stress and burnout. 

One of the core benefits of developing observation skills, then, is that you can become a more responsive manager, employee, and co-worker -- which benefits both you, your team, and the organization in the long run.

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