What’s the hard part?


The hardest part is paying attention to what happens when we act. In the blooming buzz of confusion that is the social world, we can only pay attention to a little bit of what is actually occurring around us. For most of us, we focus a large part of attention on ourselves – particularly when we are nervous – and the task of doing what we planned to and the sensation of how we feel. When we’re anxious, the simple sensation of being anxious takes up much of our attention. All of which makes paying attention to what is happening around us very difficult. So the hardest part is observing what happens when we act. How do others respond? What do other people say and what don’t they say? What do other people do? What facial expressions did I see? What interactions were there? Who turned to whom and rolled their eyes? Who smiled in support?

It requires a great deal of effort to really pay attention to what is happening. We all have a strong tendency to quickly make sense of things, name it in some way to ourselves and then stop paying attention to what is actually happening. It is difficult to stay with our senses and keep seeing and hearing what is happening. But that is exactly what observing is all about. We would like to have a video recorder in our heads that made a record of everything that happened, but even then it would only record what we saw and heard – and miss whatever happened outside of our sight and hearing.

Observing also includes what is happening inside yourself. You need to be an observer of your own emotional and feeling states. This means being able to recognize that you felt anxious as opposed to just feeling anxious. It means recognizing when you are happy or sad, anxious or calm. It means inquiring as to why you are anxious, happy, sad, or calm – what is it about the situation that elicits that particular emotional response from you. And what happens when you feel that way? How does that affect how you act? How does that affect your ability to observe?

Observation can also involve many other phenomena or processes relevant to your project. The possibilities are endless – the state of playgrounds in a community, the success of local agricultural initiatives, the distribution of shacks in an area, a database listing of community members and their self-reported skills and abilities, a photo gallery of storm water problems in an area, etc. – and successful observation generally requires careful planning beforehand, then discipline and attention to detail when observing or collecting data.