Increased Awareness Study Guide (page 3)
In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.
Louis Pasteur, French scientist (1822–1895)
It's important to be aware of what's going on around you. That way, you can spot problems that arise. This lesson is about increasing your awareness so you not only observe problems, but participate more skillfully in decision making and problem solving at home, work, and school.
To improve your critical thinking skills, you have to be more attuned to what's going on in your environment. If you consistently use focused, not casual, observation, you're more likely to notice when your input is needed. When you focus, you increase your awareness to what's going on and process the information more skillfully.
There are three important things you can do to increase your awareness:
- Use your five senses.
- Get information from another person.
- Actively seek information.
While all three can work well, there are potential hazards with each. Knowing the hazards and ways to avoid them will help you use your powers of perception proficiently.
You are continuously using your senses to observe your environment. For instance, you see that the gas gauge is indicating that your tank is near empty; you hear your dog barking when he needs to be let out; you feel the heat coming off a grill before putting your food on it.
But just using your senses to note things isn't enough to help you determine that a problem exists. You need to put things into context by making an inference, or an educated guess, to help you make sense out of things. In other words, you ask yourself, "What does this mean?"
For example, you are waiting for envelopes that contain information about pay raises. When the envelopes are passed out, a coworker who opens his envelope and reads their contents looks depressed. You have made an observation, but what does it mean? You can infer from the depressed look of your coworker that his raise is probably much lower than expected.
Think of things you've personally seen and done, as well as things you're read or seen in movies and on TV, to help you infer, or "read between the lines."
Sometimes you don't actually observe a problem yourself; it's presented to you by someone else. For example, Lisa's boss tells her he suddenly has to go out of town, but he's already scheduled an important meeting for the next day with four other top-level executives. The boss expects Lisa to reschedule it. Or, Mark's professor announces that she's going to include questions on tomorrow's exam from a section she hasn't covered in class. Everything Lisa and Mark know about their problems, for which they need to find solutions, was told to them by someone else.
Road Block to Increased Awareness
A potential hazard of the direct method is that the person informing you of the problem may not see the situation clearly. What he or she thinks is the problem may not be the true issue. Thus, you need to pay careful attention and not automatically assume that the information you have received is accurate. Try to substantiate it by seeking even more information about the problem before taking any action.
Another way to increase your awareness is to actively seek information. This method is typically used after you have discovered that a problem may exist. In the previous scenario, it would have involved talking with another person (his teacher) to get more information. But you can also gather information from more than one individual, or source, like surveys and opinion polls.
Focusing Your Observations
You have already learned some of the best ways to increase your awareness. To improve problem solving and decision making skills, you will need to take this awareness to the next level by focusing. No matter which way you are informed, you will need to apply yourself to get the most out of the information you receive. You must:
- concentrate. Give it your undivided attention.
- create a context. Look at the situation as a whole, instead of zeroing in on a small part.
- be thorough. Your observations must be extensive and in-depth.
Situations occur around you all the time. Many of them require little or no attention on your part, such as your commute to work each day by bus. When you are a passenger, you can allow your mind to wander or even read or take a nap. The driving of the bus is taken care of for you. However, if you commute by car you must pay great attention, both to the road and to other drivers.
In instances that call for your awareness, you must pay careful attention. Concentrate on what you are observing or hearing. Sometimes the most critical piece of information is tossed out as inconsequential, an afterthought that you might miss if you are not fully aware. For example, your teacher explains an assignment at the end of class. He writes on the board the period of history you are to write about and suggests some sources of information. After many of your classmates have closed their notebooks and grabbed their backpacks, he mentions that your papers must be no longer than six pages. If you had not been paying attention to all of his instructions, you would have missed this critical piece of information.
Create a Context
Focusing your observations also means bringing together many pieces to make a whole. In order to make sense of what you see or hear, you need to create a context for it—understand your observations in terms of their surroundings. Imagine someone tells you about a problem that he or she wants you to solve. The context in this case might be everything that person has said to you before. Perhaps he or she is constantly complaining about problems, many of which are not really worth your time. In that context, the new problem is probably also something you do not need to concern yourself with.
In contrast, imagine that you hear strange noises coming from under your car while you're driving down the highway. You suddenly remember that yesterday morning you saw a puddle of fluid on the garage floor under the car, and that you had some trouble starting the car in the supermarket parking lot that morning. You put the pieces together to create a context for the strange noises, leading you to take the car to a mechanic for a checkup.
Look for patterns. Is this problem like one you've had before? How did you solve that one?
To best understand the situations you face, you need to look at them from many angles and take in as much information as you can. For example, you are attending a major league baseball game. Your seat is on the third base line. The opposing team's best hitter is right-handed, and the first time he was at bat, he hit the ball into the stands a couple of rows in front of you, where it barely missed another fan's head. With that observation in mind, what kind of attention will you pay to the game, especially when that hitter is at bat again? If you are thorough, you won't just watch the scoreboard or your team's outfielders. You will observe the batter hit the ball and watch to be sure you are not in harm's way (or that you are in the right place to catch a ball!).
Try putting yourself in someone else's shoes to view a problem from a new perspective. Ask yourself, "What would that person do?"
When you increase your awareness, you make more sense out of your observations. Do that by using your senses, listening to what others say, and seeking more details. And when you are in the process of gathering information, concentrate, put it in context, and be thorough. You will not miss a thing if you pay careful attention—and you will become a better decision maker and problem solver in the process.
Skill Building Until Next Time
- Find a good spot for people watching, such as a coffee shop or outdoor café. Observe those around you, using your senses, with the goal of increasing your awareness. Is a couple about to have an argument? Is someone who is walking down the street without paying attention about to trip over a dog on a leash?
- The next time you are driving, make a mental list of the things you need to be aware of, and what might happen if you are not as observant as you should be. You might list an erratic driver, a child riding her bike, a utility company doing repair work from a parked truck, or an intersection regulated by four-way stop signs.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Increased Awareness Practice Exercises.
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