How To Become Self-Aware By Indulging In This Beloved Pastime

And without meditation, drugs, or therapy

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

It’s the purest form of self-discovery. It’s not meditation or journaling though those things help. Introverts are naturally better at it than extroverts, but this skill requires development and fine-tuning regardless of your raw aptitude.

I call it active observation. You might call it people-watching, but it’s not the passive form of people watching you associate with this activity. Think of it as people-watching with purpose.

Improving your observational powers may not sound compelling. It might even seem boring. I call it my secret weapon of personal development. How often do you notice, question and probe the experiences that happen around you? Most of us barely notice the treasure trove of learning opportunities from professional people watching.

A sample from a recent people-watch experience

Improving your power of observation will change that. Here’s how to sharpen your skill.

Pick a location

Find a location with lots of people. I prefer coffee shops because you often find people engaged in discussion. You don’t have to wait for something to happen. There’s almost always a fascinating engagement to observe: relationship talk, family, work, and business to customer meetings.

I particularly like to observe job interviews. I’m not sure when job interviews at Starbucks became a thing, but you can learn a lot about power dynamics from observing these interactions.

If you have the time, snag a spot on a park bench, dog run or stroll through a busy museum. The frequency of the activity won’t be as concentrated as a coffee shop or a bar, but it’s helpful to change things up and observe people in different environments.

No distractions

Take off your headphones. Put your phone and laptop on airplane mode. You can keep your laptop open to give the impression you are working — as opposed to spying — but leave it on a page that won’t interest you or distract you from your mission.

Multitasking will stifle your efforts. Your eyes should toggle between your notebook and subjects. Background noise is unavoidable and won’t interfere with your task.

Keep a notebook handy

This might be a personal preference, but I advise using a pen and notebook. You’ll record less, but you’ll record only the most pertinent information. You can find numerous studies on the value of handwriting in comprehension and learning.

From my own experience, I find that writing by hand allows for a stronger understanding of the experiences I observe, which lead to more profound conclusions in the analysis phase.

Put on your blinders

In horse racing, jockeys will often put blinders on the horses to prevent them from looking to the rear or side to side. You need your own pair of virtual blinders when you engage in this exercise. Zero in on a person or small group of people. You’ll be tempted to peek over at other people or groups as the target you observe meanders through its spicy and mundane points of conversation.

Don’t stare at your subjects; that’s creepy. Glance every so often and use your peripheral vision.

Maintaining a laser focus for long periods will challenge you, but it is a skill that will help you in any endeavor that requires concentration.

Be attentive

Now we get to the fun part. You’ve met the pre-requisites. You’re ready to people-watch.

Make use of your senses: sight, sound, scent, and intuition. You’ll have to do without touch for obvious reasons. That said, if you’re actively engaged, you can feel the tension, connection, and disconnect.

If you’re observing two people in conversation, it’s natural to focus on their words. Pay attention to changes in pitch. Notice the subtle changes in their body language. Did someone frown after a comment or arch an eyebrow? Did one of the participants place his coffee cup on the table a bit harder than necessary? Did you notice a power dynamic? Perhaps someone sunk into their chair after a disparaging comment.

We often allow these queues to pass with barely a hint of conscious awareness, but this information will prove critical when you get to the next stage.

Scribble all of this information in your notebook. Be sure to write in chronological order. If you don’t, you’ll be sifting through a jumbled mess. I prefer to write on every other line in my notebook. This allows me to insert notes or fill in something later. I’ll use the “^” character to identify where the extra verbiage fits in. See my example below (excuse my sloppy writing).

I used the “^” to insert a question

Read through your notes when finished and fill in the gaps or expand on some of your shorthand. It’s critical to do this step now while the information is fresh in your memory.


I journal at night and use that time to analyze my observations. It’s this phase where you draw conclusions and glean the lessons. Read over your notes. Don’t fill in details at this point. Too much time has elapsed. If you find a significant gap, make a note of it so you’re more attentive on your next effort.

Glean the lessons

  1. Summarize the key points of your observation.
    Condense your earlier notes into a few lines about your experience.
  2. What emotions did I observe and what triggered them?
    If you paid attention to body language and the nuances of speech, you should be able to discern general emotions. You may not be able to determine specific labels (shame, anger, joy), but you should be able to pinpoint degrees of positive, negative and neutral.
  3. How would I have responded in the same situation?
    Pretend that you were one of the participants and run through the scenario. How would you have reacted to the same stimuli?
  4. How have I responded in past similar situations?
    This is a reality check. The answer to the previous question often yields how you wish you would respond in that circumstance. You may not find a situation that exactly matches what you observed, but you should find similar conditions if you peer into your memory banks.
  5. Compare your answers to the previous questions. Answer two of the following questions.
    What did you learn, confirm or disprove?
    What did it show you about human nature?
    Did it make you question a current belief? How so?
    What can you conclude as a result of this experience?

Bonus: Write about it

In my early days of writing, I would use the results of this exercise as input for my stories. I still do that though not as much. Writing helps crystallize the lessons.

You’ll also notice that patterns emerge. Situations repeat themselves. The individual details won’t match, but generalized situations recur. You will also find most people react the same way to similar circumstances. Not always, but it happens enough to give the appearance of a pattern.

You’ll also understand how you act in these situations. By playing these scenarios in your head, you’ll recognize them when they occur. You can then act with intention rather than reflex.

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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