When we’re discussing Soft Skills, one of those most in demand in the marketplace is Observation. More specifically, in this context, we’re talking about Critical Observation.

What’s the difference? Plain, old, ordinary Observation is simply the ability to gather information based on what a person has seen (primarily), heard, read, or otherwise noticed. It is the intake of information. It’s a basic human skill, and one well worth developing.

Critical Observation, on the other hand, adds another layer of complexity. Here, the observer not only takes in information, but also applies a layer of analysis as to what information is important, how important different pieces of information are in a relative sense, and which pieces of information are likely to relate to each other.

This process shouldn’t be confused with Critical Thinking, which implies a much more in-depth level of analysis and the drawing of conclusions. Rather, Critical Observation can be thought of as a sort of early-sorting process; a separating of the obvious wheat from the chaff and sorting into broad categories.

This process can be further divided by making a distinction between applying it to People and applying it to Processes. (Somewhere in-between are Environments.) The examples below should help to demonstrate how this skill works, and how valuable it can be.

Imagine that a client comes into your agency as a walk-in. There are a number of things which you can observe about him, which include:

With this simple list, you might be tempted to draw certain conclusions. But let’s apply a level of criticality to each of these.

The first item required observing more deeply. The second required weeding out. The third required looking at from multiple points of view. Of course, it’s possible that the client is a homeless alcoholic. But it’s also possible that he’s a banker on his day off, who did some gardening in old clothes, and had a wine with lunch. The more critically you observe, the more likely you are to gather useful information.

Imagine that you have an employee who has been a problem for some time. On repeated occasions, you have had to “write up” this employee. Facts evident from her file include:

The obvious solutions immediately present themselves: either offer an incentive (and possibly training) to manage time better, or institute the threat of firing for the same reason. What id we look more closely, though?

The first example is mostly Person-focused; the second is mostly Process-focused. Both are important, and while a lot of the skills overlap, each is important and requires their own practice.

Games that can help to build Observation skills include: