In my work as a coach and consultant, I help my clients to design actions that will support their learning. While at times this might mean having a conversation, reading an article, or practicing a particular skill, the “action” that I most commonly co-create with my clients involves “just” noticing. Putting noticing front and center, and separating it from trying to change a habit or behavior, is something I learned from my teacher, Doug Silsbee, whose new book Presence-Based Leadership: Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience, and Results That Matter is the inspiration for this post.

Silsbee suggests that before we try to create new habits, we spend time on self-observation.

My first practice in self-observation was around not interrupting—I spent several weeks observing myself. I didn’t try to change anything, but I did learn to be a careful “noticer.” I noticed when I did and when I didn’t interrupt. I noticed the physical sensations that I felt before I wanted to interrupt (for me, that was a tightening in my chest). I often remembered, and probably just as often forgot, to notice.

When I give this assignment to my clients around a particular behavior or habit, and when I take it on for myself, I’m almost always surprised by what emerges. “Just noticing” allows us to observe without judgment, without feeling pressured to change or adjust anything. Noticing without actively trying to make anything different is a great way to build our capacity for curiosity.

And, of course, without first noticing, change is very difficult, if not impossible. Noticing is a prerequisite to growth and learning.

My guess is that all of this seems pretty intuitive. Of course, noticing is needed. Of course, we can’t change what we don’t see or notice. And, really, noticing is simple. And yet, like so many of the things that matter most, simple does not mean easy. So, what gets in the way of noticing?

We don’t often take the time to notice. This is true with self-observation and when we observe our environment, the dynamics of the teams that we are members of, and the people we manage. We very often move into action without allowing time to notice and observe.

In his book The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, Harvard professor Max Bazerman speaks of the importance of noticing and that the absence of it leads to “poor personal decisions, organization crises and social disasters.”

Yes, the stakes are THAT high. The focus of Bazerman’s book is on ensuring that our biases do not blind us from seeing what matters. This begins with using what Daniel Kahneman named “System 2” thinking—the thinking that happens when we slow down and switch from System 1 thinking—our automatic pilot. System 2 thinking is required to successfully self-observe.

Using the language of psychologist Robert Kegan, a pioneer in the field of adult development, slowing down and noticing allows us to make the critical shift from Subject to Object. When we are Subject to a behavior or thought, it is invisible to us. When that thought becomes Object we can see it clearly. Every time we are able to shift from Subject to Object, we see something that was formerly invisible. When we can see that same thing as Object, new choices become possible. Noticing is one of the most powerful ways we have of shifting from being Subject to something, to making it Object.

The hardest part of self-observation is remembering to notice. We move quickly, get absorbed in our days, forget our intention to observe. We are on automatic pilot—our System 1 thinking is dominant.

So, just as curiosity is a habit (and skill) we can acquire over time, so is noticing. A self-observation practice gives us a specific target for our noticing and a way to notice. We notice our thoughts, our words, our physical and emotional reactions. Self-observation practices are a great way to build our capacity to slow down enough to notice.

Noticing matters for another, less obvious, reason. Simply put, it’s not “just” noticing:

“In a study reported in the February 26 [1998] issue of Nature, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have now conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of “watching, “the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.” Science Daily, 1998

Quantum Physics, a science whose origins date back to the 1920’s, makes the claim that the act of observing changes that which is observed. Every time we observe, we act just like the beam of electrons. When we stop and notice, whether it be our own behaviors, our teams in action, or another person, we change reality and “the greater the amount of ‘watching,’ the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.”

When I first started practicing self-observations—and designing them with clients, I assumed that they would be the first step in creating a new habit. After a couple weeks of observing, we’d move on to step two: “What do you want to do, now that you’ve noticed?” What surprised me was how often we didn’t need step two. A careful, consistent noticing practice was all it took.

When you slow down, shift from automatic to reflective thinking (System 1 to System 2), and pause, things shift. Subject becomes Object, giving us greater choice. And, even more practically, when we create the space between noticing and acting, other thoughts and feelings might emerge that take us in new directions, or others may step up and act in ways that they did not have time for when we left no space.

So, when I carefully observed my patterns of interruption, I found myself interrupting far less often. Noticing the “urge” to act was the key to taking away the “urgency” that I felt so strongly. I could choose to refrain from interrupting. And, when I didn’t interrupt, I created space for others to say and do things that I could not have imagined were possible. Indeed, observing is not a neutral act. Noticing creates new possibilities.

Leaders often feel the urgency to act without giving others space and time. When we conduct a self-observation that requires us to notice that urgency, we learn to slow down and create more space. When we do, we are very likely to notice that not only do we behave differently—but so do the people on our teams.

Another very common area for self-observation is to notice the moments when we react rather than respond—for example, to self-observe defensive reactions around a certain topic. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and author of When Things Fall Apart, speaks of “refraining” as “the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.” Refraining is only possible when we notice first. Here’s how Pema Chodron describes it:

“Because of mindfulness [self-observing,] we see things when they arise. Because of our understanding [refraining,] we don’t buy into the chain reaction that makes things grow from minute to expansive. We leave things minute. They stay tiny. They don’t keep expanding into World War III or domestic violence. It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space.”  

In Presence-Based Leadership, Silsbee makes the case for presence as the meta-competency required of leaders if they are to succeed as complexity increases. Noticing through practices such as self-observation is a key to developing this meta-competency. “Consistent self-observation and mood checks [simply noticing your mood] over time build the capacity to witness our emotions and to realize that they arise and pass on their own as we build presence.”

When you identify your next self-improvement goal, consider starting with noticing the current habit you’re trying to shift. See what you learn by doing this—and be open to the possibility that “just noticing” might be a whole lot more!