The repetitive words, "Observe, observe, observe" seem simple enough. Aren't we observing every day? Chances are, your capacity to observe is pretty good, but it may be askew at times. To explain, I first need you take a brief tour of a long run.
I arrive at my destination. It's sort of cold out and I don't want to get out of my vehicle. I've chosen to do a long run today and I am fighting it in every way possible. After about ten minutes of aimless phone flipping, I decide it's time to get out of my car and hit the pavement. But first, I need to get a warm up in. My warm up lasts somewhere between 7-9 minutes and I can't help but feel relieved and sort of annoyed at the prospect of doing this run. Don't get me wrong, I love running and the freedom it gives me. It's hard to describe the joy and taxation that running brings but here it goes. Running is like pure focus.
After the warm up is done, I start moving my feet; slowly at first then gradually faster as my body gets used to going from not running to running. Thanks coach Bennett for that line. As I increase the distance from my car, something really interesting happens. I begin noticing that the things that preoccupied my mind no longer matter. I mean literally, the sensation feels like everything is simply gone and it's just me and my breath. Bills, work responsibilities, social obligations, projects, etc...all disappear after a mile. But my mind isn't empty of thoughts. The things that happens is the thoughts that matter the most are the ones that are present in my mind. My focus is on my body and how it feels as I run. These are the only thoughts that serve a purpose as I do this exercise.
How does this relate to observation? One of the principles that are embedded in observation involves being present. What does that mean? Being present involves the idea of allowing yourself to be in the moment. This means internally ignoring any dialogue about the past or the future. It means allowing yourself to hear, smell, and feel the moment. But this is not easy to replicate in most social situations.
For example, imagine someone that comes up to you and starts talking about their day. They inundate you with their weekend plans and pictures of their new baby. Now ask yourself, "where is my mind focusing"?
The answer to that question will tell you how observant you actually are. Were you thinking about how you are going to respond to their photographs? Are you thinking about how to get out of the conversation? Are you reminding yourself that you have that yogurt in the fridge and need to eat it before it expires?
Here's the thing, if you aren't focusing on the person and the things they are saying, how they are saying it, and the body language they are sharing with you, you aren't really being present. This means that your observations are sorely limited. So when the conversation finishes, chances are you might remember some of the things that were said, but you might miss mountains of details.
Obviously, being observant involves a lot more than having a conversation with a person. But this is a good starting place to improving our observation skills. Here are some tips to improving observation when it comes to conversations.
TIP 1.) SEARCH FOR BASELINE BEHAVIORS
Before we ever say hello to a person, looking at them and asking for a baseline of behavior will prove beneficial. Many of us are unguarded at some point in our day. This means we aren't putting on a show for others in regards to our body language. If we are tired we may be slumping in our chair. Maybe our eyes reveal a listlessness to them. Perhaps we radiate confidence and joy. Whatever the emotion, if we take a moment to just look at the person and get a sense of how they feel, we go a long way to getting a baseline of behavior to compare our interaction against. How can we use that information?
If a person is happy before we say hello to them and they maintain that joy, than we haven't upset that feeling in any way. But if we are observant, if a person is disturbed by our presence, they will show it within milliseconds of us seeing them, but it will be there for you to read. If they are annoyed they might slightly scowl then return to their baseline. If they don't like us, they might show contempt. Contempt looks almost like a lopsided grin.
Whatever the emotional reveal, a baseline of behavior allows us to focus our attention a little better because we have something to compare against.
TIP 2.) LOOK FOR WHAT LIGHTS THEM UP
Most people love specific topics to discuss. Ask an open ended question about something like, "What's your personal passion project?" Or "Do you have any special plans for this weekend?" If they are willing to tell you, look for some of these signs that you have found something that lights them up.
Look for dilated pupils and faster speech. It's not a guarantee, but usually when we talk about the things that we are passionate about, we tend to speak a little faster. The amount of words we use will usually increase. Our pupils might dilate and we become just a tad more excited in our delivery. Look for these things in the person you are speaking with as they light up.
TIP 3.) FOCUS ON BODY LANGUAGE RATHER THAN VERBAL LANGUAGE
Yes all of the the tips so far have largely dealt with body language, but this one is really important to get down. Words reveal only part of what is being said. If we want to be really observant, we can't be focusing on just the words.
Once you have gathered your baseline and find what lights someone up, use this information to draw conclusions about what is said. Contradictions may begin to surface. For example, let's say that you have observed that someone looks downcast and dejected before you approach them.
Noting this, you lead into the conversation carefully. "Hey, how is it going?" After asking the question, look for signs of contradictions or congruos behavior against what their response.
If for example, they put on a smile, they might be happy to see you, but chances are they are pretending to help facilitate a conversation that doesn't center on them. They might tell you, "I'm doing okay." But their posture and tone of voice might betray that statement.
By focusing on body language instead of just what is said, you can learn a lot. This is a good start to being observant. Being observant is just the beginning if we want to improve in our ability to analyse and read people and things. But it's a really good starting place.