The value in seeing

Are you sure you understand what’s really happening?

The other day, I spent a lovely evening around the dinner table with two Yale alum and seven current students. After awhile, the conversation turned to what I do… always a conversation starter and stopper if you know what I mean….  Nothing can get people self-conscious quicker then to know they are having dinner with a body language expert.

…back to that evening gathered around the table. I shared some nonverbal tips with each student based on the body language I had observed during the meal and how they could enhance what they already do. For instance, one student, a lovely, graceful young woman had a tendency to keep her chin tucked down much of the time we were together.

What happens when we tuck our chin is the whole head, eyes included, look downward, sending messages such as “I’m shy, don’t talk to me” or “I’m busy, don’t talk to me”.  For her, nothing could have been further from the truth, she was engaging, witty, just a delight as a dinner partner.

With a minor change of keeping her chin parallel to the ground, the whole group agreed it immediately changed their opinion of her.  All she did was raise her chin by less than one inch.  Changes like this are subtle, yet important – imagine just a shift of head position to project leadership, confidence and integrity.

Sidenote: If you offer what I call “drive-by advice,” make sure EVERY tip will enhance how others see them as a leader and have the tips be quick and painless to implement in order to insure the ecology of the individual and group.


So, how did I notice her chin and why is noticing important? My story is to point out the subtlety of what is unconsciously “observed” by us all the time. She certainly wasn’t intending to send messages of “don’t talk to me,” nor were the others aware they had ignored her the majority of the evening, but others were responding to it.

A chin move…minor detail, some of you might be thinking… yet when we become better at observing what is really happening in the room we actually change the odds of our success from being about 50/50 to our favor.  In this case, a subtle shift was all it took to shift her odds of future success.

3 Tips on How to Observe What is Really Happening in a Room

For our leaders of tomorrow, and anyone else that desires to enhance their communications skills, one of the first skills to harness is the power of mindful observation. The value of training our observation skills is to bring the subtle or the nuance of what we are observing to our conscious awareness.

The basics of the mindful observation technique are: keeping your eyes and ears open at all times and keeping your emotions and “labels of generalities” such as “He’s angry” out of the mix.

Let me explain, the real power, or should I say art, of observing to understand what is really happening comes from these three areas:

  1. The ability to see without labeling. This means having a mental “file” where unknown or unverified behaviors can be stored. A label of “that’s interesting” is much better than a snap judgment label of “She’s shy.”Always be asking yourself “What did I specifically see and hear – not feel – that lead me to come to that conclusion about what just happened?”  We all jump to snap judgments, this important leadership skill is in the ability not to generalize or distort based on your own beliefs and perhaps even blind spots. How can I talk about not labeling based on blind spots, when by the very nature, we don’t know we have them?? Sorry, that will have to wait for another post.
    • Keep an open mind and your judgments at bay.
    • Stay away from assumptions and expectations.
    • When you don’t understand, ask open-ended questions.
  2. The ability to hold multiple unknowns / ideas in your head at one time. This is directly related to #1. This can take practice to get comfortable with the ambiguity of unknown, yet if we jump to conclusions too quickly we often jump to the wrong or at least an incomplete understanding.
    • Practice noticing, without labeling good or bad, your responses and feelings in new situations.
    • Practice not trying to solve every unknown – it’s okay to not know everything.
    • Here again, when you don’t understand, ask open-ended questions.
  3. The ability to see more than most people. (I’ll refrain from saying ” seeing everything” as that is not consciously possible.) Seeing more than most requires that the observer pay attention at all times. Just watch and listen. Remember #1 and #2…. Many listeners are only half paying attention. They are too busy coming up with a response to be aware of nuance of tone, word choice and subtle movement not only of the individual but of the group as a whole.Group reaction is of importance too. If you are new to a group and you react to a behavior while others don’t you’ve misread the meaning of the behavior within that culture – same goes if they react and you don’t once again you’ve misread the culture and behavior(s) meaning.
    • Practice using your peripheral vision.
    • Practice attentive listening.
    • Choose the position of a neutral observer, that “fly on the wall” perspective.

Here’s a quick 2-minute video on how to be that “fly on the wall”.


As anything of value in life, non-judgmental observation is well worth practicing. Learning to observe takes time and commitment.  You will never get everything, yet count success as the number of things you observe where you are able to maintain an open, non-judgmental mind. A funny thing about this skill, the more you bring it to your conscious awareness the more it becomes part of your unconscious competence.

Whether you are new to the culture or been a long time member of the group mindful observation pays large dividends. Often you will see and understand things long before they actually happen in the group based on behaviors and reactions you previously observed.  Leaders who master this skill will appear to be mind readers to the untrained or the unobservant…. One thing I know for sure is that others will think you are more intelligent — all you really are doing is being more observant. So practice increasing your IQ the easy way.
Until next time, have a great day whatever your adventures

To Success! To Life!