How to Be Observant

Three Parts:Adjusting Your MindsetBeing Observant in the MomentDeveloping Your Observational Skills

If you've been known to walk into sliding glass doors, nearly hit a pedestrian when you're driving, or to stand right behind your best friend in line at the coffee shop for ten minutes without noticing her, then you may need to hone those observational skills. All you have to do is turn your focus outward, slow down, and pay more attention to the details. You'll be amazed at what you don't know you've been missing!

Part 1
Adjusting Your Mindset

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    Listen to your gut. Part of being more observant is being aware of what your body is telling you. This can’t always be described in a logical fashion – it just means listening to your gut. Do you feel like you’ve walked into an awkward situation but you don’t know why? Do you suddenly feel danger when you’re on your way to your car? Chances are, your instincts are right, and you should listen to what you feel internally, even if you can’t quite explain why.
    • Many people aren’t observant because they ignore anything that they can’t clearly see or prove. You may have a sense that you are in danger – don’t ignore it just because you can’t see the bad guy.
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    Become more self-aware. Another part of being observant is being able to know yourself and to be aware of who you are, how you act, and how you come off. This doesn’t mean that you should obsess over yourself, but it does mean that you should have a sense of the kind of energy you give off; do people see you as shy, outgoing, friendly, or mysterious? Knowing yourself first will help you observe others and have a better sense of what’s going on in the world.
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    Pay more attention to others than yourself. This is something that you’ll have to do to shift your focus outward. A lot of people aren’t observant because they’re so self-conscious that they’re busy worrying about how they look or project themselves in every possible interaction. If you’re always thinking about your own every move, then how will you be able to really notice something about your friends, teachers, or colleagues? It’s important to be self-aware, but if you cross the line over to being self-obsessed, then you’ll miss off on many key observations.
    • Check yourself the next time you talk to a new friend. Are you worrying about what to say or do next the whole time, or are you too busy listening to what the friend has to say to really care about yourself?
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    Ask yourself questions. Though you shouldn’t ask yourself so many questions that you’re not living in the moment, you should keep your mind active when you’re observing something so you have the best sense of what’s going on. Ask yourself, how is this person really feeling? What is the difference between what he is saying and what he is really feeling? How many people in this room are in a good mood? How many people are wearing black? Keep your mind busy and keep prodding yourself to discover what’s really happening in a situation.
    • As you practice your observational skills, you’ll be able to keep questioning the situation while paying complete attention. At first, switching to this inquisitive mode of thinking can be a little bit distracting.

Part 2
Being Observant in the Moment

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    Put away the distractions. The reason that most people aren’t observant these days is because of the infinite amount of distractions all around us. If you're in a social setting, don't play around with your iPod. If you're studying for a test, put away your magazines. Put away anything that's keeping you from focusing and noticing whatever is in front of you.
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    Hide your phone. Spending all of your time on your cell phone is the easiest way to be completely unobservant, to annoy the people around you, and to have absolutely no idea what’s going on. What’s more, if you’re texting while walking, riding a bus, or generally hanging out in public, you’ll be much more likely to get your stuff stolen or to walk right in to a dangerous situation because you had absolutely no clue about what was actually happening.
    • If you’re having a real conversation with a friend, put the phone away and stop having a text conversation with a different friend. If you really want to observe what’s going on, then you should just focus on one conversation at a time.
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    Take the time to really listen. Being a good listener is different than just being a listener. When a person is talking to you, pay attention to that person’s words, emotions, body language, and gestures to get the full picture. Don’t interrupt the person or just wait for him to stop talking so you can start sharing your own opinions. Nod when it’s necessary, make comments when the conversation asks for it, but don’t say, “that’s so true” every two seconds or the person will get distracted.
    • If a person is telling you about a problem he or she is experiencing, don’t jump in and offer advice right away. Sometimes, the person may just want to talk – and may just want you to be there to listen.
    • Pay attention to the details a person reveals about his life so you can refer back to them in the next conversation. If you see a casual friend who says he’s going up to Tahoe to ski for the weekend, the next time you see him, ask about his big trip.
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    Use a person’s appearance to see how he feels. Being observant means more than just listening to the words a person says – it means checking out how a person looks and acts for insight into how he is really feeling. Your friend may be telling you that she’s getting over her break-up just fine, but her eyes may be red and puffy; your boyfriend may tell you that he’s not so stressed out at work, but he can come home with his nails bitten down to the quick. People may say one thing and feel another, so pay attention to their appearance for more insight into what’s really happening.
    • Let’s say your boss came in with bags under his eyes on the day you wanted to ask for a raise. If he’s acting and looking worse than usual, then you may want to wait until the next day, when he’s back to being his usual self. Being observant here can help you benefit yourself.
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    Observe a person’s mood. It’s hard to say exactly how to categorize a person’s moods, but be on the lookout for changes of behavior to see how your friends or acquaintances are really feeling. To see if there’s a change in a person’s mood, you have to recognize the norm first. If your friend is usually grumpy in the morning, then it means nothing if she’s grumpy when you see her before school; but if she’s a morning person and looks groggy and like she hasn’t slept, then something bad might have happened to her.
    • A mood is like an aura that surrounds a person; be observant to feel out the “vibe” you get. A person can be upset, excited, nervous, angry, bitter, confused, frustrated, elated, or disappointed without saying a word about it.
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    Use all five senses. Engage all of your five senses when you're in a conversation with someone, or even just when you're observing others. This is the ultimate way to be fully observant. Here are some things that you can do:
    • Use your eyes to observe and scan your surroundings and people's behavior wherever you are.
    • Use ears to pay attention to all the different voices. You should be able to distinguish voices from a lot of noise.
    • Use touch to know the mood of people. For example, if someone shakes hands with you and you find the person's hands sweaty, then the person may be nervous.
    • Use your nose to detect any smell that is out of the ordinary, like a sudden change in aroma of the area.
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    Notice what’s not being said. What a person tells you is just as important as what he or she doesn’t say, so pay attention for what’s absent as well as what’s present. For example, if your friend is always gushing about how amazing her boyfriend is, and suddenly, he doesn’t come up at all in the course of a long conversation, then maybe something is up. If your mother has been really excited about a big promotion at work, and then she comes home and only wants to talk about your schoolwork, then maybe things didn’t work out.
    • Often, people don’t want to mention the disappointments in their lives – or the things that they want to keep private. Be observant to see what’s missing in a conversation.
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    Pay attention to body language. Body language can be another strong indicator of what a person is really thinking and feeling. If a person is standing up straight, looking straight ahead or like he’s ready for the next big thing, then chances are, he’s in a good mood and ready for success. If someone is slouching, hunched over, fidgeting with his hands or looking at the floor, then maybe things didn’t go so well for that person today.
    • But of course, if that’s how the person always looks, then the body language may not mean as much – but if you notice something out of the ordinary, then it may indicate a change in mood or emotion.
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    Notice your surroundings. Don't just pay attention to people. Notice how many cars are in the parking lot along with yours. Notice what kind of birds are flying around the beach that day. See which fruits are being sold in the grocery stores, and notice whether the prices have gone up or down since the last time. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times, and look for anything out of the ordinary, even if you're just walking down the street.
    • You can practice noticing your surroundings when you're on your own, and then become more aware of your surroundings when you're talking to people.

Part 3
Developing Your Observational Skills

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    Take a painting class. Painting classes will greatly improve your observational skills because you will have to paint whatever you see in front of you, whether it’s a beautiful landscape or a bowl of fruit. You’ll have to understand lighting, proportion, and other key elements that will help you see what is really in front of you and to analyze it as well. You don’t have to be naturally gifted to take a painting class. Even if you don’t come out a stellar artist, your observational skills will reap the benefits.
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    Spend time observing people from a distance. Situate yourself in a coffee shop or a park, get your latte, and watch what people are doing. Pay attention to body language, moods, conversations, and actions. You can look at them in general, or you can look out for specific things – unhappy couples, career-oriented women, best friends, people who are nervous, etc. This will help you hone your observational skills and get used to observing people from a distance.
    • Just make sure you don’t look like a creeper. Don’t watch children on a playground or do anything that would arouse suspicion. Try to be discreet by bringing a book or something to do while you watch.
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    Do a puzzle. Puzzles help you pay attention to all of the little details and to see that every little piece is slightly different and can only fit into one place. Spending time alone working on a puzzle can sharpen your mind and memory and it can also help you notice the beauty in the details of many different objects. On a larger level, this can help you see that while many people around you are similar, no two people are alike, and that the differences are worth noticing.
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    Meditate. Meditating helps build awareness of your mind and body and will help you develop your observational skills in the process. Take the time to sit down for 10-15 minutes every morning and/or evening, make sure you’re comfortable in a quiet room, and listen to the breath rising and falling out of your body. Focus on relaxing one body part at a time until you find yourself in a state of real relaxation, and are able to notice all of the little things around you while keeping your eyes closed.
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    Do yoga. Yoga builds awareness, and therefore, observational skills. Doing yoga makes you quiet your mind, focus on the moment, and be aware of what your body is doing and feeling at every possible moment. Practicing yoga just a few nights a week will make you a more calm, aware, and reasonable person. Being more in control of your mind and body will make you more observational because you will be able to get rid of distractions more easily.
    • Doing yoga, like meditating, takes practice. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t get in the zone right away.
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    Watch a foreign film without subtitles. If you know a little bit of a foreign language, or even if you’ve taken the language for a year or two, try watching a film in that language without turning on the subtitles. Sure, some of the plot will be lost to you, but try to watch the characters and to read their body language, moods, as well as the situations they find themselves in to pick up on the context and try to figure out what’s going on.
    • If you really want to see how well you did, watch the film again with subtitles and see how many things you got right.
    • This will help you focus on more than just the words in any given situation.
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    Take notes. Taking notes isn’t just for class. You can take notes anywhere you go to help improve your powers of observation. If you are taking notes in class, have a separate sheet where you write down the stuff you don’t have to know for your exams – note what people are wearing, what the teacher’s mood is that day, if there are any birds near the window, or what the general mood in the room is. If you’re at a cafe, take notes on what other people are reading, eating, or discussing.
    • You can be sneaky about it. You don’t have to stare at people and furiously jot things down in a small notepad. Write in a larger notebook and keep a textbook or novel handy so people think you are taking notes on the reading material.
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    Take a dance class. Taking a dance class will improve your powers of observation because you will have to watch how the teacher’s body is moving and mimic those movements with your own body. This won’t be easy, and you’ll have to put your mind to work as well as your body. You’ll have to isolate the movements and see how they all come together to understand what’s really going on. Mimicking any process will improve your own observational skills, even though it won’t be easy to get the moves right on the first try.
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    Train your mind. Do logic puzzles. Play “Where’s Waldo?” Play the game where you have to look at two nearly-identical pictures and figure out what’s different about them. Start an account on and improve your brain power. Make the effort to keep your senses sharp, to notice new things, and to always question whether or not there is a better way to do something.
    • Putting in just 15 minutes a day into doing some mental math can help you become more observant – and more committed to continuing to improve your powers of observation.


  • Try to observe things daily, and make it as a habit of yours because at first you will often forget to "observe" around you. If you repeat it a number of times, you will involuntarily start to observe things around you.
  • Never invade someone's privacy to spy on them.


  • If you're conversing with someone, don't stare at him/her the whole time. You can observe the person's body language in the conversation's pauses.
  • Don't show people that you are being observant; there are chances you may repel them.
  • People may think you are spying on them or stalking them.

Things You'll Need

  • Pencil
  • Paper

Article Info

Categories: Speaking and Listening Skills