How To Improve Your Observation Skills in 9 Steps
Updated June 24, 2022
Observation refers to the ability to take note of surroundings and draw meaning from them. It's an essential skill both professionally and personally, as it ties into various other important qualities that allow you to interact effectively with your environment and the people in it. To build your observation skills, it can be helpful first to understand what they entail and how they affect you and others. In this article, we define observation skills, discuss their importance and explain how to improve them.
What are observation skills?
Observation skills are qualities and proficiencies that relate to your ability to one or more of your senses to acknowledge, analyze, understand and recall your surroundings and the elements within it. Practicing observation requires being mindful of the people and things around you. It's about more than just noticing the presence of an individual or an object, as keen observation entails making connections between what you see and deeper levels of meaning.
For example, if you note that a normally talkative colleague has become quiet and withdrawn, you can draw conclusions based on this sudden contrast. This is emotional intelligence, a type of observation skill. Perhaps the colleague is tired or distracted by personal concerns. Observing this change, you can then decide to act, even if only to ask how they're doing. Thus, by exercising your skills of observation, you're prepared to respond to situations that can affect the atmosphere of the workplace.
Why are observation skills so important?
Observation skills are important because they foster improved competencies that contribute to an efficient and harmonious workplace. These include:
Solving a problem often begins with identifying its source. Being observant allows you to notice details or concepts that others may have missed. These can ultimately reveal how to overcome a challenge, particularly if you can make additional logical connections between ideas.
For example, when they were initially developed, Japan's bullet trains produced a great amount of noise, particularly when emerging from tunnels. The noise was due in part to the shape of the trains. The manager of the technical development team determined a solution based on observations of the kingfisher, a bird that can dive cleanly into water thanks to its pointed, wedge-shaped beak. Redesigning the trains to resemble a kingfisher beak resolved the noise problem without compromising on speed. The resolution was possible because of an individual's ability to observe and make connections.
Critical thinking is the ability to analyze facts and then draw a conclusion. The ability to think critically often relies on observation skills to realize. For example, a hiring manager or interviewer may observe an interviewee's nonverbal cues as they process and then respond to questions. The gestures and behaviors they observe can inform them of details that go unspoken, such as whether the interviewee is comfortable, whether they're being honest and how interested they are in the position. This connection between observation and critical thinking can extend to any position that requires a good judgment of character, particularly managerial roles.
Teamwork is the ability to work well with others as you strive to meet a common goal. Being a good teammate requires being vigilant about others' abilities, attitudes and actions. Recognizing the areas in which a colleague excels, capitalizing on their strengths and being aware of their emotional responses to situations can ensure that they contribute optimally to the team and prevent quarrels and misunderstandings. Without such challenges affecting the dynamics of the group, teammates can better cooperate and accomplish their shared tasks.
Interpersonal intelligence—the ability to understand how people feel and interact with them accordingly—is a contributing factor to teamwork, but also extends to professional relationships in general. Interpersonal intelligence relates to both others and yourself, as healthy relationships rely on your being aware of your own attitude and adapting it to the situation. Observation is a key component of interpersonal intelligence because monitoring people's behaviors and responses can provide insight into how they feel.
How to improve observation skills
Follow these steps to improve your observation skills:
1. Identify your purpose
When you're looking to improve something about yourself, it can be helpful to understand why. Knowing your purpose for a goal can keep you focused and guide your practice. If, for example, your primary interest is in being a more helpful teammate, keeping this purpose in mind can help you direct your attention to matters relating to your colleagues, such as their strengths, interests, concerns and challenges.
2. Focus on the present time and place
Observation involves taking in the details of a particular setting. Being preoccupied with concerns relating to future events, past occurrences or distractions such as your phone or social media can hinder your ability to recognize what's going on around you. As you work on strengthening your observation skills, try to put away all distracting elements and acknowledge the present moment.
3. Mindfully monitor your environment
The ability to observe, like any skill, can strengthen with practice. Try to spend some time every day just observing your environment, using as many of your senses as possible. You can do this anywhere that you can observe activity noninvasively, such as a park, a town square, a sidewalk table or your office desk. Over time, you may notice patterns in behaviors and attitudes, which can make it more apparent when they shift.
Your subjects don't have to be people. You can also observe animals and nature. Fish in a pond, for example, can be excellent subjects for practicing your observation skills, as you can take in how they look, how they move and how they react to different stimuli.
4. Take note of details
As you mindfully monitor your environment, try to consciously acknowledge specific details and commit them to memory. This means achieving deeper levels of recognition of a subject. To extend the example of the fishpond, you can begin by acknowledging how many fish you see each day. From there, you can determine whether the number changes, and then consider reasons it might change. As you observe more, you can try to note the physical details of each fish, distinguish between them and determine whether you're seeing the same fish every day.
The idea is to train your mind to notice details automatically. This way, you're always observing your surroundings and no longer have to do so consciously. With your mind constantly in an observational mode, you may be surprised to discover what details you recall from your surroundings.
5. Consider taking notes
An important aspect of observation skills is the ability to recall what you've observed. To improve your powers of recollection, consider writing your observations and the details you've noticed. Try to keep a notebook on hand, or use a notetaking app on your phone. Remember that it's important to perform this exercise mindfully, meaning with a conscious acknowledgment of your subject and what you're doing. Taking notes mindfully, rather than idly, forces you to focus on the function of the activity, which can help your brain to process the information usefully.
Related: 15 Techniques To Improve Memory
6. Mindfully approach your everyday activities
Mindfulness in other activities, particularly those that are routine, can motivate you to be present in your environment and be more receptive to its details. Identify activities in which you normally incorporate a distraction. Eating, for example, is an everyday activity that people commonly perform while watching television or an online video. Instead of consuming entertainment while you eat, focus on the food instead. Note how it looks and smells, feels in your mouth and tastes. Acknowledge your physical and mental reactions to the food as well.
Another such activity is exercise. It's normal for people to listen to music or podcasts while walking or running, but try approaching the act with just your senses instead. Pay attention to the sound of your feet on the pavement and the cars rushing by, the feel of the air and the sensations of your body's reactions to activity. Every moment you spend using your skills of observation is a chance not only to strengthen them but also to raise your appreciation for the details that you might otherwise overlook.
7. Perform observation exercises
Observation exercises are activities designed to test and build your ability to recognize, recall or connect details. These usually involve an image, a video or an arrangement accompanied by one or several questions. A famous example is Kim's Game, in which you spend a minute studying a number of objects on a table or in a picture, cover them and then try to write as many of the objects as you can remember. Playing this game trains your brain to notice and recall details.
There are other exercises that train your other senses as well. One involves trying to identify objects only by the sound they make. Another asks participants to examine a room for a moment before turning out the light and having them navigate through it by touch. Look online for examples of other observation exercises you can do at home.
8. Learn more
You can direct your observation skills to more than just your environment and people. You can also apply them to tasks. It's important to learn as much as you can about subjects in which you'd like to be more observant. For example, developing a basic understanding of coding and computer-related concepts can allow you to notice IT developments in the workplace, even if this field isn't part of your work. With such knowledge, you can contribute more broadly to your work and thus improve your standing in your organization.
9. Test your skills
When you feel that you've developed your observation skills, you can put them to the test by acting on your observations. If, for example, you notice a coworker seems stressed, try approaching them and politely asking about it. They may say they're fine and offer an explanation, or they may admit that they feel overwhelmed and you can offer help. In either case, you gain implicit feedback about your observation—whether you were right or wrong—and can use that to inform future observations.
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