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Observation Training Guide: How to Become Great at Understanding Body Language

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God is in the details.                                                

Today I’m going to talk about a tool we can use to help us read body language more profoundly and accurately – Observation.

What do I mean by being observant? It’s the act of paying attention to certain details and sorting them out of the total information we receive. In terms of body language – a good observation skill is necessary to get all the little and sneaky nonverbal cues others display.

Of course, we prefer to do it automatically and efficiently, without really thinking too much about it. To achieve and improve that skill I made this guide of observation training for body language.

So, grab your magnifying glass, and let’s get down to the details… Maybe we won’t find god, but we will have a good time nonetheless.

How Keen is Your Observation?

First, let’s test your observation skills – take a careful look at this video:

I’m quite sure that if I told you before watching the video to look for a dancing bear – you would’ve noticed him right away… But as the video suggests, it’s very hard to pay attention to something we’re not looking for.

Want another example? OK, read this paragraph and answer the question that follows, it involves some “out of the box” thinking.

“A man dressed completely in black– he wears a black shirt, pants, shoes, and even a black mask, walks down the street with all the street lamps off. A black car is coming towards him with its lights off, but the driver somehow manages to stop the car before hitting the man. How could the driver see the man?”

Got it?
This time the solution was in the details I didn’t give you:

Solution: It was happening during the daytime, it doesn’t matter if everything else was black or the fact that the lights were off.

It’s a lateral thinking exercise but I show it to you to demonstrate the power of the little unnoticed details. More lateral thinking exercises here.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t observe and answer correctly on the exercises, they are meant to be tricky and distract you from the main object. I wanted to demonstrate to you the power of keen observation and attention to detail.

Perception vs Reality

My point in these exercises was to show you that there’s a little misconception when it comes to perception – we think we get the whole picture, while we can miss a lot of info going on.

Why is that?

Because our observation is not completely objective, and it’s very selective:

Imagine that I would’ve told you to find 1 match in a heap of wooden chips (I know… how cruel of me).

You would automatically filter any information you get from the ‘non-important’ chips and concentrate on the one thing that separates the match from the chips – its ignitable “head.”

So when we look at things around us we automatically filter the important and interesting facts for us.

So, what is important and interesting?

It depends on whom you ask.

A physician might look at people and focus on their physical condition while a salesman will try to determine their potentiality as customers.

In short, this selection on what to focus on is based on our experience in life, our expectations, and our current thoughts (ever noticed the fact that after you bought something you see it practically everywhere? Has it suddenly magically appeared there? Hmm…)

Why Do We Need Observation Training?

As you can see we have a little problem here – we know that nonverbal cues are important (don’t we?) but we ignore a lot of them, not because we choose to do so, but because we’re simply not used to paying them much attention.

Remember that I said that reading body language is mostly subconscious – our brain knows how to do the job, and we’re not completely blind to it, but when it comes to the small details – we might slip. So the purpose of observation training is to consciously take control and record the details that we consider important. We want to expand our awareness and alert our brains to these details.

How is Observational Training Done?

Naturally, the mere interest in body language might help you become more aware of it, just like when you learn any other new info – it makes you suddenly aware of it almost anywhere in your life.

But there is an even better observation training technique that I found to be very effective – asking questions.

You see when you order your brain: “Be alert to body language now!” Your brain responds by: “Come again? What specifically do you want me to look for?”

By asking questions you direct your mind to look at details you’ll otherwise miss. You can ask questions like:

  • Posture – How does this person stand?
  • Is he using open or closed body language?
  • What’s the look on his face?
  • What does he do with his hands?
  • What about his legs?
  • Does he make eye contact?

There are plenty of questions you may ask, it all depends on what you see, and what signals you already know. As you become better you might ask more relevant and specific questions to help you read faster and more accurately.

Even if you think you don’t have a clue about body language you can still ask yourself more general questions that will help you learn and be aware:

  • What type of personality does this person have?
  • Does he look welcoming or defensive?
  • If I had one word to describe this person, what would it be?
  • Can I create a background story for him?

The purpose of these questions is not to judge people, and your answers may be very far from the truth, but, you train your mind to look for details that support your assumptions.

If you decide that someone looks defensive – ask yourself why you think that way. Because he has a glaring stare? Because he crosses his arms? Because he wears a T-shirt that tells him to back off?

Train Yourself to Observe Automatically

woman observing a couple lovers talking

The whole point of this observation training is to help you notice and read body language more easily.

If you train your brain to be more receptive and aware, you won’t need to work hard to notice nonverbal subtle cues. It will become your second nature to get them as soon as they surface.

Observation is a very useful tool if you know how to use it; it’s also a component of many learning skills. That’s why I also highly recommend doing some observation training exercises to sharpen your mind.

In the next part, I’m going to explain why and how you do some practical exercises and games to improve your observation skills.

I’ve talked about how you can train your observation for body language by asking yourself the relevant questions.

On this page, I want to take this one step further, if you’re inclined. I want to talk about why it’s important to hone your observation skills in general, and how you can do it with some simple and fun observation exercises.

Benefits of Observation Training?

Ever since I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I have been fascinated with the concepts of attention to detail and the deduction of an accurate conclusion from them.

You might say it was my inspiration to get into the whole body language thing in the first place.

The stories in the books are exaggerated and fictional, but they still show a great deal of the power of accurate thinking and attention to detail, and I believe we can learn much from them.

Observation is essential in many study skills and it’s the source for our creativity and critical thinking. Deduction is the art of separating the important data from the unimportant to get an accurate explanation.

A quick side note: there’s a difference between looking and observing, looking is just “mining” anything without any intention of using it later, when you walk the street you see everything but you don’t plan to do anything with that– it’s an insignificant data for you and you’ll forget about it eventually.

Observation is the “mining” tool – we get the right raw materials to work with and then we can process them in any procedure we need in our “factory” – the brain.

brain exercising

Some examples of these processes:

  • In memory – before we learn to associate anything we must observe it first.  We need the details to use them as “hooks” in association with something we already know.
  • In critical thinking and deduction – just like Sherlock did.
  • In creative thinking – we rearrange our ideas based on new findings and get new inspiring results.
  • Now, without further ado, let’s jump to the observation exercises themselves:

Observation Exercise #1 – Are you familiar with your own home?

a cozy living room

This one you can do right now in front of your computer:

Take a blank piece of paper and list every object located in your room. Don’t look around! Visualize your room, and simply list every object in your room you can remember.

If you can – describe it in detail.

After you’re done, take a look around and see how accurate you were.

You’ll be quite surprised to find out that many things, you see practically every day – are missing from your list.

You can make such an exam several days in a row, and you’ll notice that fewer and fewer items will be missing from your list every time as your observation (and the memory of your room) improves.

You can do this exercise in any other place that you know quite well  – your office, your favorite bar, your street, anything you sure you “know” as the back of your hand.

By the way, how well do you know the back of your hand?

Observation Exercise #2 – I’ve walked this road before…

empty road

When walking down the street or driving your car, pay attention to your surroundings.

Describe the things you see to yourself as if you’re describing your surroundings to a blind man sitting next to you.

You’ll find that you can discover much more details than it seems to be at first. Plus it can pass you sometime in the otherwise usual boring drive or walk.

Observation Exercise #3 – Photographic memory

woman with good memory skills

Pick a random picture and take a close look at it for about a minute.

Then close your eyes, visualize it, and describe it in detail as much as you can.

You may find that your imagination sometimes fools you, and you make up stuff when you don’t exactly remember what you saw.  Once you get more proficient you can set yourself less time for each test.

Observation Exercise #4 – So you think you’re Sherlock, huh?

This one is especially related to reading body language.

Next time you’re in some public place and you have a free moment – imagine that you stand at a crime scene.

Pay attention to every detail and every “suspect” around you.

Try to remember each person as if you were asked later to describe him for a profile sketch. Then close your eyes and test yourself to see how closely you remember the details.

Just do yourself a favor, don’t start acting like some fiction undercover detective. Don’t stare at people, and don’t wear a heavy coat with sunglasses – believe me, it can lead to strange and unpredictable results…

Observation Exercise #5 – Play Observation Games

two people observing four colleagues in a meeting

Observation games can be a fun and semi-productive way to pass the time and train your observation skills.

Their effectiveness is a bit lacking in my opinion and I don’t suggest relying solely on them to improve your observation but they can be really fun.

You can find hundreds of “find the difference” flash games online and try them out. Train your observation skills with them. Some of them are good.

Make Your Exercises

As you can see, it’s fairly easy to train your observation.

It’s all based on the concept of close examination, good memory, and awareness of your surroundings.

Develop and try some new observation exercises that fit your taste and available time.

If you have some great ideas you can contact me and I’ll publish your findings.

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Stefan Speaks AI
Stefan Speaks AI
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