The power of observation is profound and challenging.
You can look at something but not observe it.
The challenge of improving observation skills goes as far back as the Bible, where several times it is written, “You will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
If you want to know how to improve observation skills, ask yourself: are you looking or really observing?
Let’s go to the root of the word difference between looking and observing.
LOOK: “Direct one’s gaze toward someone or something or in a specified direction.”
OBSERVE: “Notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.”
The key difference is when you observe, you learn something. When you simply look, you only notice that something is there.
- Can You Learn to Be More Observant?
- How to Be More Observant with 10 Mindful Strategies
Can You Learn to Be More Observant?
The difficulty in improving observational skills relates to your personality and genetics. FBI Profilers are extremely observant people.
You can practice being observant by yourself, in public, and with friends. You can take tests, like the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, which can even tell you if you are a natural observer.
Even under the category of observation, there are levels to learn:
- Observing emotions: These people can “read the room” and be empathic based on visual signs.
- Observing errors: This person can scan your documents to find typos or look at a math problem and find the miscalculation.
- Observing Sensory Elements: It smells like something is burning, but this person knows the difference between a burning pot of coffee and a printer overheating.
- Observing Change: As an example, Steve Jobs saw what the world would need in the future and didn’t focus on the “here and now.”
- Observing Accuracy: This person knows when you said earlier that you went golfing on Sunday but then later said you stayed home Sunday. They will also pick up when someone changes clothing in the middle of the workday.
How to Be More Observant with 10 Mindful Strategies
Improving observational skills starts with the area you’d like to focus on.
If you want to be more aware of your surroundings, then you should focus on environmental observation.
If your significant other says you never listen, you’ll want to focus on emotional observation.
Nail down where your observation skills are weak and focus on the power of observation.
1. Unplug from Social and Digital Worlds
We live in a constantly connected society where Americans check their phones on average 96 times each day. That means we can’t go even 15 minutes without taking a peek.
If you want to be observant of the world around you, it starts with shutting off social media. Give it to your significant other for the work day.
Set time limits on your device. Once you look at the world around you, you’ll have more mental bandwidth to be observant.
2. Observe, Don’t Look at Social Media.
We know that #1 was a doozy. We will inevitably look at social media, email, and websites throughout the day.
However, you probably look at social media more than you observe it. One quick look at the headline of a Tweet, and we’ll fire off a comment. That’s looking but not observing.
The next time you find yourself ready to comment on a post, force yourself to read the entire article attached to the post, read some of the other comments to get different perspectives on the topic, and consider how your comment will resonate with the poster. Then comment respectfully.
3. Trust Your Gut
Intuition is partially based on observations we don’t consciously realize we’ve observed or cannot explain.
Following your instincts can help with improving observational skills.
For example, you’re approaching an intersection where you always turn left. Something in your gut tells you to go straight instead of turning.
You immediately shrug it off because you always turn left. Moments later, you’re sitting in a traffic jam caused by a construction project.
It can also happen in a dangerous part of town when you’re unsure where to go, but your gut tells you to stay on the main road. “Trust your gut” is a great way to learn about what observations you might have consciously missed.
4. Play Games
You can put your true observation skills to the test with observational games. You can play in public or in the privacy of your own home. The only requirement is to be able to see the item you observed after observing it.
Here’s how it works: Watch 10 seconds of a YouTube video by your favorite musical artist. Then close the video.
Write down all the details you can remember. Be as specific as possible. Then go back to look at the video and see what you missed.
Another game or test can help save lives, and it’s an excellent exercise for parents or siblings. After a child goes to school, they quiz each other on what the child is wearing.
- What color were their socks?
- How tall is he or she?
- Was he or she wearing a jacket or a short-sleeved shirt?
- What color was it?
This kind of observation is imperative when a child goes missing.
5. Take Your Time Before Joining the Line
Try this test at a crowded store. Load up your cart and then go to the check-out area. Look at each line.
Observe the people in line, how much is in their carts, how quickly they are moving, if they are talking to others in the line, etc.
Then pick a checkout line for yourself. Observe the other line as you wait. In the end, did you correctly observe which line moved faster?
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6. Be More Like Your Dog
Our lives are so rushed that we rarely take the time to enjoy the journey. Even walking the dog can be a hurried activity.
However, do you notice who’s not in a rush on that walk? The dog! Dogs are instinctively driven by scent. They observe every scent possible to make the best decision about moving forward or going back.
It’s not until they fully understand a scent that they decide to move on (unless their owner makes them stop).
On the next walk with your dog or partner, take your time to enjoy the views.
Notice the sights, sounds, and smells. You might be rewarded with seeing the very first leaf turning to the fall colors or noticing Mr. Johnson walking without Mrs. Johnson for the third time this week. The power of observation can create emotional moments you’d miss in a rush.
7. Be Present
We can become so worried about the fight over breakfast or the soccer game tonight that we miss the “here and now” moments. Being wrapped up in our own thoughts can appear dismissive to those around us.
The more present you are observing, the more likely you’ll notice a colleague’s new haircut or that your niece has painted her nails.
There’s a yoga practice during meditation where you center yourself and calm your mind. When an intrusive thought pops up, you let it pass like a cloud floating in the sky.
Do that with your intrusive thoughts during interactions with other people, and you’ll observe things you’ve never seen before.
8. Ask Questions
The one thing our brains enjoy more than observing something new is figuring out why the new thing is happening or exists.
It could be as simple as “Why did you paint the conference room yellow?” Then you’d find out the color yellow is said to be mood-boosting and invigorating, which is preferable in conference rooms where boring meetings can drag on for hours.
It could also be helpful to poor Mr. Johnson, whose wife sprained her ankle working in the garden, and he’s having difficulty taking care of her and getting groceries. Your observation and questions now allow you to help a neighbor in need.
9. Learn to Read Body Language
Most of the time, we communicate before we even open our mouths. Unless you have perfected the art of the poker face, you are giving away clues to those with the power of observation.
As former FBI body language expert Joe Navarro said, “We’re never in a state where we’re not transmitting information.”
For example, we’ve been trained to think that someone crossing their arms isn’t open to being approached, right? It turns out that arms folded are really a hug we give ourselves to self-soothe, according to Navarro.
The more you learn the true meaning of body language, the more you can better read the room before anyone says, “Let’s get started.”
10. Be Self-Aware
Knowing who we are as individuals helps us be less anxious or stressed in day-to-day life. Our internal biases and moods can influence how we observe the world around us.
As an example, we might feel stressed about a work project and view everything else through the lens of our stressful feelings.
Recognizing our emotions and their impact on us reminds us to focus our attention on the here and now.
Self-awareness can calm the fight or flight state of mind and allow for more focused power of observation. It will also help us realize how other people observe us.
Marilyn vos Savant has the highest IQ ever known, and even she knew the power of observation by saying, “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”
Without observation, there would be no science, medicine, or even information to write this article. Becoming observant is an attention-filled journey, not a destination.