How Good Are Your Observational Powers?

Almost everyone likes to believe they have good powers of observation, but as NLPers, many of us, hold ourselves to a higher standard (or at least expectation/desire) that we should be able to notice things better than most. Unlike practitioners of TFT who use their SUDS (subject/subjective units of distress) test to calibrate where the person they are working with is on a scale of 1 to 10, we as NLPers often are tracking for non-verbal changes like a change in state, access cues, shifts in breathing, etc, in addition to what the person says.

Yet as human beings first and foremost, we can be as "blind" as the next person in thinking we are excellent at observing others. As a species, the information gathering capacities of our body exceed the capacity of our central nervous system to process it. We are constantly deleting stuff out. And many times, what we delete or distort after we have begun processing it, is important stuff.

Refining our observation skills is key to doing greater and greater work with the technology, whether on ourselves or with others. In this post I have two fun observational tests for you and share some insights about the implications of not seeing what is actually there and the pitfalls and benefits of this.

But First, What Are Some Of The Key Factors That Cause Us To Miss So Much.

1. We are limited by our biology

Specifically we are limited by how much the brain can consciously track. The usual story line is we can only track 7 + or - 2 things "consciously", although experience will tell you that sometimes people can only track 1-3 things. In addition, because there are literally so many potential data points we could focus on, our body deletes out massive amounts which means that we typically have little awareness for the multitude of things that are going on inside and outside us - things like how you are holding your body (posture), the relative tension, the pressure of the air around you, and so and  so forth.

2. Our perception is also limited by what we focus on (and how we focus on it)

Whatever grabs our attention, temporarily has us hooked and tends to be what we focus on. During this time our brains filter out most of everything else that is going on, depending on how "hooked" we are on whatever it is we are focused on. If you have ever had to shout a few times to get someone's attention while they were engrossed watching a program on TV, you know this problem only too well. Usually it ends in the person who was shouting saying to the viewer "are going deaf, I was calling your name!"

Refining our observation skills is key to doing greater and greater work with the technology, whether on ourselves or with others.

But it isn't just TV that hooks our attention. There can be any number of things, however once we do get hooked we then to quickly frame how we are looking at that thing or situation from a specific perspective. For example, lets say you hear from a friend that "John was out last night and threw up all over the sidewalk". Well if you have already had some prior experiences with John and these have always been about him getting very drunk, then without the person saying anything more, there is a good chance that you will instantly assume (lock in on) that John was getting drunk again. However he may have just eaten a bad curry!

In fact there may have been many reasons why he threw up, but your brain will instantly lock in on the most probable bias you already have wired up, and then you will most likely state it as fact.

"John is always on the bender. I don't know why he just doesn't take it easy and have one drink and not twenty when he goes out".

This tendency of human nature to lock in on a fixed perspective, typically without any reference to reality, rather simply a pre-wired model of the world, and then treat their opinion as if it was "reality" can cause no end of mis-understandings and problems.

It can also be very useful, for example if you see a car swerve in front of you when driving and will trigger you to "be careful, pull back" pattern etc.

The problem of "I have seen this already" mindset for NLPers is we instantly label something as X (our prior judgement) and think however we described the said situation is the only way  that something is. This can have  negative consequences because you completely miss out on what is actually going on in a situation. And in a learning context this can result in years of wasted effort.

This human behaviour pattern can be summed up as: we have lost touch with "reality", and replaced it with "this is the same as that" and so we lack awareness of what is actually occurring.

Take for example an NLP training. Over the years, many NLPers and non NLPers have said "I attended so and so's seminar and I couldn't notice them anchoring .. they were just telling stories... were they actually anchoring us?". Inevitably they almost never get how to do conversational anchoring, as least while they are framed by their current model of the world. This pattern of putting a pre-conceived label on top of what is actually occurring, frequently repeats itself many times and soon a person comes to the (inaccurate) conclusion "NLP doesn't work", and often moves on to something else.

So what is the antidote? We will come to that in a moment.

The important point for now is: if you can't spot when your mental models are holding you back (relative to some outcome you are in pursuit of) and don't know how or what to change them to .. then you are going to experience considerably more pain and so called "failure" when your "model of the world" doesn't match up to what is required by the environment and goal success factors you are in pursuit of.

So let's take a quick test of your basic observation skills.

Watch this YouTube video below and see how accurately you can count the passes the players in white make.

So how did you get on?

Did you see it or miss it? It doesn't matter if you did or not, you just want to "stay frosty" as they say in the military which means be alert and keep your senses fresh.

Many people miss the _________, and are convinced that she wasn't there the first time round ... until they rewind the video back.

Regardless of how you got on, now let’s see how well you can get on with this awareness test. This test is somewhat tricker, your job is to find a specific scene (which the video will tell you about). Go watch it now.

So did you spot the lake, ducks and bear background? If not you can catch it between seconds twenty two and twenty three seconds - there is a very rapid flicker of it.

The point of these short videos is to warn all of us to never think your way of thinking or perceiving is telling the complete picture (this applies to me as anyone else). In fact, the situation is even somewhat worse, in that the only thing we have is the present moment in which to make our observations - everything else, so called "past memories" is only accessed through our minds, and we all know how inaccurate one's memory can be. Of course camcorders are handy, but again that is from a single external viewpoint.

As NLPers this has big implications for when you are "rewiring yourself" and also when working with clients. The quicker you are able to identify how a person keeps themselves stuck, the quicker you will be able to help them and vice versa.

However missing key pieces of what went on isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact as NLPers, some- times we deliberately will want to shift a person's focus so they no longer lock in on something that they remember as having occurred. We deliberately intend to distort their perception of what went on.

Where could that function be useful in your life?

Making It Practical

So try something out with me. Pick an area of your life where you are "stuck", somewhere in your life right now where you feel you can't or haven't yet been able to make the shift in X situation (life, business, career, nlp skills etc). Got it? Good. Now drop all sense of certainty, at least temporarily that the way you think of it, is as you describe. Just let it soften and dissolve.

Now assume you are framed by your own thinking. Re-connect with your senses. Stay with what is sensory observable. Become like a architect... write down on paper how you are currently holding X situation i.e. what narrative do you use to define the situation? What story do you be-lie-ve is at cause for you not yet having what you want?

Take another step back, ask yourself what presumptions did I make about the problem state? How many weren't true? Assume they are not and look for evidence that indicates your previous way of looking at this thing is inaccurate or at least partially incomplete.

Once you discover how you have been holding the "problem" state, it's time to "kick the legs" off the old assumptions and identify what specific action steps you can take to liberate yourself and get yourself closer to the outcome you want. Assume there is a way, especially if your first pass doesn't produce the solution yet that you want. Keep trying on different perspectives by doing "what if scenarios?" that will give you new insights.

If you need some creative input, seek out other people's perspectives about how they would go about solving X or what can they see about X situation or how you are approaching it, that you presently are not?

Listen and test out their ideas as hypotheses that can lead to a possible dissolution of the problem or at a minimum a workable solution.

Continue until you have shifted that thing that had been bothering you.

Have fun with this process and stay frosty.


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I'm Tom.

Everyone has something they’d like to change in their life. I’m here to help you transform the behaviours that get in your way so you can have the life you really want.

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