10 ways to improve your observation skills (and your career), part III

Meet Dr. Matsumoto

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Matsumoto is the author of The Handbook of Culture and Psychology and the APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication.

And something a little unexpected: He’s a 7th degree black belt in judo.

How do you balance it all? Do you use productivity hacks?

Dr. Matsumoto attributes all his success to his commitment to judo. He’s practiced judo since he was seven years old–meaning he’s done it consistently over the last 50 years! He practices judo almost every night of the week and that doesn’t include tournaments or teaching. He schedules all of his academic work around judo, and this activity has helped him to be more efficient and structured. It doesn’t hurt that he’s naturally disciplined too. 

I just try to produce everyday.

Dr. Matsumoto

Dr. Matsumoto’s daily structure reminds me of the research I read on the ebbs and flows of movement in open spaces. In big, open spaces, such as train terminals, the walking traffic is chaotic and messy as no one quite knows where to walk or how to pass by other people. However, if you interrupt the traffic with an object, such as a bench or a roundabout, people flow more smoothly since there’s a more defined traffic flow.

Dr. Matsumoto’s “bench” is judo–it helps the rest of his life flow more efficiently. Judo serves as an everyday refresher for him.

Action Step: What’s your judo? Do you have a “bench” in your life that can help you take a mental break you can carve the rest of your life around? What’s the one thing in your life that you aren’t willing to sacrifice? Adding an obstacle in your routine can help you structure and schedule everything else.

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Video

Perception, Reality, and Distractions

Observation is what you perceive with your senses. Perception is taking what we observe and organize it to give it meaning. Our perception is determined by our past experiences, culture, values, and beliefs. Because each person assigns different value to each of these influences, the same object or event is perceived differently by different people. This is why multiple eye witnesses to the same crime often have very different descriptions of the same suspect or event. Although our eyes may see the same thing, we filter, focus, and perceive it differently. Another limit to our perception is our human brain. Optical illusions point out these limits. Looking at an optical illusion, you may think that a straight line is curved or a still image to be moving. You don’t always see what you think you do. Despite the limits of our brains, people have a remarkable ability to focus, and that ability enables us to accomplish our goals. Even when we are focused, we may not see everything we are focused on. Our misconception about how well we can focus on a task makes us prone to distractions. What is a distraction? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a distraction is “something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention”. So a distraction could be anything! It could be thinking to hard about a personal problem, letting your mind wander, surfing the Web, chatting with a friend, or talking on your cell phone. Watch the video Have you ever walked down the street and had someone on their cellphone bump into you? Researchers at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, decided to study whether cellphones were such a distraction that people wouldn’t notice weird events happening around them. [Grimthingcom, 2012]. [PDF transcript] Idea Log Everyone has experienced a time where they “missed” something while on their phone, at work, at home, driving, cooking, etc. Share an experience when you missed something. Scenario: Shift Changes In today’s global economy, manufacturers must be more responsive than ever to keep up with the fast changing demands of their customers. As companies look at producing smaller batches and lean manufacturing, many are moving to a 7-day schedule because an idle machine is considered a lost opportunity. Continuous operation requires people to work shifts. Shift change disturbs the production flow and brings a new set of eyes to the machines. So information needs to be accurately exchanged between shifts to ensure safety and efficiency. Because communication is also prone to error, it is important everyone pays attention and is aware of potential problems and safety issues. Watch the video Watch professionals in advanced manufacturing discuss how they communicate potential safety and technical problems in shift changes, morning meetings, and huddles. [PDF transcript] Taconic High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is a comprehensive, fully accredited high school with special programs in Health Technology, Manufacturing Technology, and Work-Based Learning. Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, prepares its students with applied manufacturing technical skills, providing hands-on experience at industrial laboratories and manufacturing facilities, and instructing them in current technologies. H.C. Starck in Newton, Massachusetts, specializes in processing and manufacturing technology metals, such as tungsten, niobium, and tantalum. In almost 100 years of experience, they hold over 900 patents, and continue to innovate and develop new products. Nypro Healthcare in Devens, Massachusetts, specializes in precision injection-molded healthcare products. They are committed to good manufacturing processes including lean manufacturing and process validation. Idea Log Think about what you’ve learned so far about observation and paying attention. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned? How to improve observation skills You can follow these steps to improve your observation skills: Look for details. Avoid distractions. Keep an observation journal. Quantify things as you notice them.1. Look for details Take some time each day to pause what you're doing and try to pick out as many details as you can from your surroundings. There are usually big or attention-grabbing things in your environment, but try to move past these objects to find some of the smaller, less noticeable attributes. For example, you might immediately notice the computer, chair and desk in a colleague's office, but try to pick out details about the paint, items on the desk, pictures on the walls and even the carpeting.2. Avoid distractions Electronic devices, busy surroundings or even your own thoughts can easily distract you from observing the places and people around you. Instead of listening to music on your walk or commute to work, try paying attention to the sounds and sights to see what you notice.3. Keep an observation journal It can be helpful to carry around a portable journal with you so that you can write or draw the things you notice. You can also keep a document on your computer for small observations throughout the day. Focus on things like the: Objects around you, including their placement, shape, size and color. People present, including what they're doing and what they're wearing. Things you see, hear, touch, taste and smell.4. Quantify things as you notice them As you observe, try to be as specific as possible. A great way to do this is to avoid generalizations like, "There were some people in the break room." Instead, count exactly how many people there were. Behind the Scenes of Humintell You’ve done so much research. Do you have a favorite study you’ve facilitated? My favorite study is always the last one.Dr. Matsumoto Dr. Matsumoto revealed that he is so proud of his current research and that every time he publishes a new study, he feels it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Now that’s what I call living in the moment! Can you share anything unpublished you’re working on now or is it all secret? Dr. Matsumoto shared that he’s currently incredibly interested in clusters of nonverbal behavior. Analyzing clusters simply means using multiple channels to determine intent and potential deception and can use both verbal and nonverbal signals. When there’s extreme cognitive load or pressure on the brain (this typically happens when someone lies), signaling can occur in lots of different ways–someone may gesture more or less than when they are telling the truth, someone’s speech may change or a variety of other behavioral changes may surface. In human lie detection, there’s no Pinocchio’s nose, meaning there’s no one cue that means someone is lying. When you examine clusters, you get a much clearer and accurate picture of a subject’s mental state. You’re studying people all day long. Has anything you’ve learned professionally been brought into your personal life or changed anything about the way you conduct your personal life?  There’s no way to turn it off, Dr. Matsumoto told me. What’s important to remember, he suggested, is that anyone can learn a skill, but it’s someone’s intent behind that skill that affects behavior. Being able to read and decode people may make someone an incredible leader or influencer if they have positive intent. However, with malicious intent, these same skills can cause someone to act negatively.  You can use it for good or bad.Dr. Matsumoto If I were to give you a grant for unlimited funding, what would you want to study? Dr. Matsumoto said he’d want to study the same things, but he’d go about his research in an entirely different way. Right now, academics are siloed by department, meaning psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, etc. all are doing separate research in different spaces. With unlimited funding, he’d bring these experts together to look at nonverbal behavior from all angles and drivers of the human experience. Basically, he’d create an unstoppable interdisciplinary team to understand how nonverbal all fits together. Unfortunately, the current education model has created what Dr. Matsumoto refers to as the “Humpty Dumpty” effect, which is that everything for one particular topic has been broken up into a million pieces for experts to study separately. This can make the bigger picture or usable findings scattered. A lot of research is trial and error–not every experiment succeeds. Do you have an example of a past experiment with a hopeful hypothesis that didn’t pan out as you thought? Is there one study that keeps you up at night? Dr. Matsumoto said yes, many of his experiments turned out differently than he expected. More than that, however, is the surmounting research that he hasn’t published yet. He’s been published in academic journals more than 160 times, yet there are hundreds more studies that either didn’t make the cut or haven’t been formally written into a paper. One area he’s currently studying is nonverbal signals of triumph and how other mental states contribute to nonverbal behavior. He told us that nothing keeps him up at night–he’s too exhausted after his nightly judo practice! The good news is there is lots more research to come from Dr. Matsumoto’s lab, and we can’t wait to share it with you! Follow along with Dr. Matsumoto’s journey:HumintellDetect Deception How to improve observational skills: Practice removing distractions While we mostly adore technology, we understand the perils of it in a work context too. It’s very distraction-heavy and there are numerous ways someone can get in touch with you and derail what you’re working on. If you’re constantly in reactive mode around pings and instant messages, you won’t observe much — rather, you’ll just become a task jockey above all else.  We see this borne out in marketing too: in the 1980s, marketers needed to get in front of a prospect 6-8 times to be successful. Now it’s considered 20+ times, and a lot of that comes from reduced attention spans. While the attention span science is mixed on whether or not attention span has actually declined in the last two generations, we definitely do know that there’s more ways for someone to be distracted, and that cuts into observation skills and general attention. If you start thinking and researching the neuroscience and biology of how we pay attention, you realize that the goal is to need to retrain your brain to pay attention to what’s important at that moment. Dr. Daniel Simons frames this up in the context of the entertainment industry: So script supervisors, the people who work on movie sets, know how to look for particular kinds of mistakes that might end up into a movie that would be noticed. And they look for specifically those – and they ignore the other stuff that’s never going to matter, or the stuff that’s never going to end up across a cut. What they know, that most people don’t, is that their memory is lousy, that they can’t rely on their memory. And they know to take all sorts of notes and keep careful track of the things that are likely to matter. One way to handle this and train your brain is to block out uninterrupted work time on your calendar, or set aside an entire day where you just focus on bigger-picture issues and turn off connective devices, don’t check email, etc. It can be hard if you’re mostly a reactive, task-driven person — but it’s important to focus more deeply and observe what’s around you. If your organization goes to a hybrid model in 2021 and 2022, use some of your work-from-home days to focus more deeply and also …  How to improve observation skills: Reaction vs. response A lot of this discussion does come back to reaction vs. response, which is a very important issue at work as well. The difference: “Reaction” tends to be quicker. It can almost make the recipient feel on the defensive. “Response” tends to be thoughtful and contain reasoning. Here’s a good primer. “Reaction” is more instinctual and tied to our “reptilian” brain; “response” is a bit more evolved and tied to our developed brain. You need stronger observation skills, generally, to “respond” to work issues. Reaction does not require tremendous observation skills.  In this Tim Ferriss-Tony Robbins podcast, Robbins has a good line in there about business culture. Here’s the set up: once you move past 2-3 employees, the law of averages is not on your side. If you have 10 employees, there’s a good chance that, at some point in the day, someone will screw something up. If you have 20, there’s a bigger chance. What if you have 10,000? 75,000? There’s a chance something is being screwed up at every second. You’ve got two choices in this situation: “reaction” — hair-on-fire screeching about everything — or “response,” where you realize problems will happen and you deal with things thoughtfully as they arise. In order to be a manager (or even an employee) that can contextualize failure in a “response” manner, you need observation skills, because you need to be able to see both the minute details of what happened and the bigger picture as well. That’s how to build observation skills. That’s observation and listening. If you are a more reactionary employee or manager, you will respond to the initial set of stimuli above all. Long-term, that doesn’t improve conditions and may foster more stress and burnout.  One of the core benefits of developing observation skills, then, is that you can become a more responsive manager, employee, and co-worker — which benefits both you, your team, and the organization in the long run.TagsTerms of UsePowers of Observationteam of editorsbottom of theall of theworldpowersamp