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Passion, People and Principles

Watch out!

post # 319 — March 1, 2007 — a Careers, Client Relations, General, Managing post

A manager I once worked with said that his key talent was not listening to people, but WATCHING them — clients, colleagues, superiors and subordinates — and understanding them better than other people would be able to do just by listening.

I was reminded of this insight as I reflected on my experience as a juror. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been put into a strange situation for me. For the 5 days of the trial, I was forced to be an OBSERVER, not a participant.

Until the time came to deliberate on the verdict, I could not ask questions, I could not intervene, I could not discuss things. I was forced to be a WATCHER as well as a listener.

It taught me a lot. I earn my living through words, but I am increasingly coming to believe that we don’t best reveal ourselves (or judge others) through words, but through other means.

I’ve never been trained to “observe”, I’ve never read a book on it, and I don’t have a natural proclivity for it. My wife can be with people at a party or family gathering and tell you things about what they are feeling that were never said out loud. She just “notices.”

Try this exercise: Just watch people in a meeting and see if you can answer these questions about them:

  • How self-confident is this person?
  • How would you describe their level of optimism or pessimism?
  • What emotional needs do they have?
  • What type of role would they function best in?
  • Is this someone you would trust?
  • Would other people want to work with this person?

Even if you’ve never been trained in psychology and never read a book on body language, I’ll bet you’ll get very close to the truth.

Which raises a series of interesting questions:

  1. How good a watcher are you?
  2. What makes someone a good observer?
  3. Can YOU figure someone out by observing them?
  4. What do YOU look for?


silver said:

I’m an observer. Observing requires you to remain passive for a time and most of us struggle with that. I hate having phone conversations because I lose part of the conversation by not being able to observe the person talking. You can tell if a person is incompetent or simply nervous by observing and my mom says you can tell if someone is lying by watching their eyes… I’m not that good but she is. I look at the eyes and the hands mostly but I’ve never read much on the subject… I guess it’s just my nature.

posted on March 1, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, silver. Anyone else out there able to help the rest of us on HOW you get better at this?

posted on March 1, 2007

Karen Morath said:

I wonder what people can tell about me by just watching? And is there any way I can affect what they think from one day to the next and from situation to situation? Or am I hard-wired?

posted on March 1, 2007

Wally Bock said:

We can certainly improve observation skills. After all we teach them to several different groups of people now, inclucing police officers. In my supervisory skills programs we teach some material on how to understand your people better. Here are some things in that program.

It helps to have some kind of easy-to-use system that you can apply. There are a variety of social styles systems, all based on Jung’s personality types. My favorite is the one outlined in Tony Alessandra’s book, the Platinum Rule.

Listen to the language people use. It often gives you an idea how they think. People will also tell you what they’re interested in.

There are no magic solutions to any of this, but by improving the way you observe people you can increase the odds that your contacts with them will be pleasant and productive.

posted on March 1, 2007

Pamela said:

You’ll notice a lot of things if you watch a person doing something. But will other things will be noticed if they know that they are being observed?

posted on March 2, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Does anyone know of any good references on watching, observing? What materials are used to train police officers?

And yes, Heisenberg’s principle probably applies; the act of observing alters that being observed. But it’s better then not being able to understand what you’re already seeing, right?

posted on March 3, 2007

Marcel Goldstein said:

Hi David, Paul Ekman has spent a lifetime studying facial expressions and their connection to emotion, especially when the communication is unintended. I highly, highly recommend his research, books and CDs to improve powers of observation about people.


posted on March 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Marcel. I’ll check his work out.

posted on March 3, 2007

mary wynne-wynter said:

I’ve always loved people watching, too!

I believe the best way to coach and mentor skills development is through observation and feedback. This requires a well thought out methodology. Based on specific criteria you note facts and your reactions, not your judgments. For example: “Jane sometimes puts her hand in front of her mouth when its her turn to speak. It bothers me that I can’t hear her points.” It sounds simple but I’ve seen many coaches fail because they can’t quiet their voice of judgment: “Jane’s body language proves she is timid and the weak link in the team”. If a coach is willing, she can quiet the voice of judgment by sticking with the methodology and observing when her ego is interfering.

I like to practice in the midst of strangers by ‘not’ trying to figure anything out, but instead just feeling the energy of the individuals and the group. While observing, relaxing and focusing on my breathing helps me deepen the feeling of human connection and ‘oneness’.


posted on March 5, 2007

Nicolas Kübler said:

I also prefer seeing the person directly over having him on phone. When you watch the reaction you can see, if he understood you and how he likes what you talk about.

Paul Ekman is one of the best-known authors who describe the body language. But also Allan Pease wrote some books about body language (I don’t know the English titles of the books, but searching for “Allan Pease” will help here). Besides that the books also helped me understanding women especially my girlfriend, but that’s a different topic…

I really wonder that you never read a book about that topic while I read a lot about “listening” in your books. But in nature observing/watching is very important e.g. when you are getting to know a new person, you try to talk about something and you watch if you like his reaction. If not you might prefer to switch to a different topic in the conversation.

As far as i know women know that watching is important, they actually have some skills to understand other persons just by watching them. They are more sensitive to their environment. So as you might experienced yourself it is harder to tell a lie to a woman than a man.

posted on March 6, 2007