Your observational powers can have a significant impact on your life because you will be armed with more information. The Oxford dictionary defines observation as “the action or process of observing something or someone in order to gain information.”
Information is an essential tool for decision making, listening, and being aware of what is happening around us. We observe things with our eyes, but also through listening to others and our surroundings.
Honing your observational skills is a valuable use of your time simply because knowledge learned is never wasted.
“To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.” ― Marilyn vos Savant
Visual observations that aid in decision making
Being aware of what we see happening is the first step in analyzing any situation that you find yourself in. If you are walking down a dark alleyway and you see someone walking close behind you, your brain immediately analyzes what is happening.
Does the person look threatening? Are they matching your pace if you speed up or slow down? Is their face obscured?
These are things that you analyze so you can make the correct decision about whether or not you are in danger. Observational prowess doesn’t just keep you safe, but it can also be used in a professional sense.
If you are a manager at work, and you observe an employee repeatedly standing around and not working, you first analyze the situation.
Are they getting through their work because it isn’t challenging enough? Are they just goofing off and need constant redirection? These observations will help you devise a plan on how to best handle the situation and help your employee be successful.
“Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.” ― Arthur Conan Doyle
Audio observations can also aid in making decisions
We process information as we see it, but we can also glean useful information from the things we hear.
I was walking around the lake near my house one day; alone, and in the dark. I have never been afraid, but this one night the moon was nonexistent and it was cloudy and especially dark.
My headlamp had died, and I couldn’t see anything around me. I was walking along, deep in thought, when I heard branches crunching behind me. It didn’t sound like someone was walking at a leisurely pace behind me; it sounded hurried and I was instantly on alert.
I had a few moments to decide what my reaction would be to a potential threat that I couldn’t see coming. I am a fighter (not a flighter), so I planted my feet and whipped around. Three deer came barrelling out of the woods, just feet away from me.
Thankfully, this wasn’t some homicidal madman, but I used my observational listening skills to process that something didn’t sound quite right. Often, we will hear things before we see them, and having a keen sense of the surrounding sounds can make all the difference in what course of action we take.
In a professional setting, you might overhear a conversation that alerts you to a problem someone is having in the workplace, even if they don’t show visually that they are upset. This information can help you know how to proceed in the future.
For instance, I have overheard conversations about someone planning to put their notice in. This tells me that I need to interview more people just in case and have a plan for the future.
“We do not need to attend classroom training programs for everything. Observation opens the windows of knowledge around us” ― Sukant Ratnakar
Visual cues can help when you are listening
Most people think that listening is an activity done solely with your ears. However, there can be a wealth of information found when you actively listen to people.
Active listening involves looking directly at the person you are listening to. This gives you the ability to observe their body language, and not take their words at face value.
If someone sounds calm and unaffected but you notice their fists are clenched, or their legs are shaking, you can deduce several things. Maybe they are angry and they don’t want to show it. They could also be nervous, and not as confident as they seem.
If you play poker, then you know that you should be looking for “tells.” Just because someone says that they want to raise the bet, doesn’t mean they aren’t dealing with a crappy hand. Watching their body language helps you understand how a person is actually feeling.
The way someone sounds is almost as important as the words they use
Listening is so much more than hearing a person’s words. If you listen with the intent to observe, you will be able to hear variations in people’s voices. The more excited I am, the higher and louder I become.
My teenager knows almost immediately if I am lying because my voice gets squeakier. If your friend is telling you they are ok, but you can hear their voice quivering, you know they are more upset than they are letting on. All of this knowledge will help you know what to do next.
“Remember yourself. Deep inside, you have an observer, a constant neutral witness to your posture, gesture, facial expression, breathing, taste, impressions of light, and sound. Don’t leap to interpret. Just be there and observe.” ― Jonathan Price
How to develop your observational skills so you don’t miss out on this knowledge
When I was a lifeguard trainer we used to do a simple skill drill. I would take about 20 random items (anything from a stapler to a pen or a paperclip) and lay them on the table. Each potential guard would have 60 seconds to observe what was on the table. Then I would cover it up, and ask everyone to write down what they remembered being on the table.
I was constantly surprised that people remembered less than five items. Some would remember ten or so, but only a few would be able to recall more than that. This little skill is a great way to work on visual observation and memory, but how else can you improve your observational skills?
The Mind Tools Content Team offers these fantastic tips on how you can develop this skill:
- Be familiar with your subject so you can understand it (like how my child is an expert in my vocal sound patterns… it is immensely frustrating.)
- Look outwards and be focus your attention on what is happening around you (like when you are alone in the dark at the lake.)
- Try something new that encourages you to become aware of new things and thought patterns (your nearest escape room is a great way to train yourself to be more observant.)
- Be less distracted
- Challenge your brain with new tasks (like the mental exercise I used with new guards.)
- Write down the things you observe (anything you saw or things you heard in a day.)
- Question and analyze things more (being eager to learn and question your perceptions will add value to your daily life.)
“If you want to really know something you have to observe or experience it in person; if you claim to know something on the basis of hearsay, or on happening to see it in a book, you’ll be a laughingstock to those who really know.” ― Jonathan D. Spence
You should develop your observational powers because it leads to more knowledge
“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.” ― Susan Sontag
When you use the information that you have observed to make informed decisions, you usually make better decisions. This is because you are armed with knowledge, and aren’t proceeding blindly into a situation.
No one likes being blindsided, and having keen observation skills can alleviate that feeling of waiting for a shoe to drop. Knowledge and information is power, and you can achieve so much more by simply being more aware of the world around you.
As a writer, I feel like I am looking for a story to write about in everything I observe. Do you think that you are observant or do you feel like you might be missing out on vital information? What was something you observed that struck you as interesting or odd today? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!