The Art of Observation

If you want your team to observe with more consistency, reliability, and precision, then you must spend more time practicing the art of observation.

At a seminar of forty people in Göttingen, Germany, individuals gathered in a large auditorium to hear a lecture on the powers of distinctive observation. As soon as the meeting began, two men ran into the room, one chasing the other with a gun. Initially, everyone was startled, grasping their faces, not knowing what to do. Immediately after a brawl between the two men occurred, then a gunshot was fired before both men escaped from the approaching police. Once the men left the auditorium, the police told everyone to sit back down and write down everything they just observed in the last few minutes. No one knew this was a staged fight and occurrence. No one knew this was a scientific study on the art of observation. When the papers were collected, the results were staggering. Only one person had less than 20% errors of the principal facts in their report. Fourteen had 20% to 40% mistakes. Twenty-five had over 40% mistakes, and the most remarkable results were over half of the stories written had 10% of details that were pure fiction. Events that never occurred, yet people included them in their observations.

How could people be so wrong about something they had witnessed, and the entire process took less than five minutes to occur? How could more than half of the people in the auditorium fabricate events? False observations may occur from illusions in someone’s mind then translate into harden truths when repeated continuously. The belief that a lie becomes truthful the more often you tell the same one tends to become a reality. The critical point to understand about this experiment is that not everyone is a keen observer or can see the obvious. There is an old belief that applies, “We are prone to see what lies behind our eyes, rather than what lies before them.” As leaders, coaches, and educators, we rely on other observations, never doubting the validity of those reports.

If people in a controlled setting can make blatant mistakes with fabrication, how can we guard against this happening in our organization?

  1. Recognize there will be mistakes in all reports from observation. Attempt to train people to observe. Give seminars on the art of observation.

  2. When hearing the story, write down every detail and ask for the person to include their notes. Determine how much of the story comes from memory and how much comes from actually written observations. We are all better when we take notes.

  3. Ask the same question three different ways, listening for any variables in the original observation. Why do detectives make suspects repeat their story? They want to test the memory as well as the specific details. We need to do the same.

If you want your team to observe with more consistency, reliability, and precision, then you must spend more time practicing the art of observation. As baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” But we can learn more when we train our senses to become distinctive in our observations.


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