Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Take a Look Through the Magnifying Glass: Improving Perceptivity

  • November 3, 2019
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)

By Tara Laughlin, Ed.D., Competency-Based Learning Specialist at Denver Public Schools; Former Director of Curriculum & Education Training at PAIRIN


Study the picture below, and see if you can find the hidden image:

Did you find it? There’s a man’s face peeking out among the coffee beans!

The ability to find him tests the strength of your observation, a key element of the skill of perceptivity. Perceptivity is the ability to accurately understand yourself and others, using observation and interpretation. It’s an important social-emotional skill involving both social and self-awareness.

Being perceptive has many benefits:

  • It helps you better understand your own thoughts, emotions and reactions, which is a key step in any self-improvement you might decide to make.
  • It can strengthen your relationships with others, as perceiving how others feel allows you to be more empathetic.
  • It can improve your performance at work, as it allows you to navigate challenging situations, remaining sensitive to others’ reactions.

If these are benefits that appeal to you, the big question is how to get them? By improving your perceptivity. This occurs through two phases: OBSERVATION and INTERPRETATION.



Understanding yourself through perceptivity means having a greater awareness of your own sensations, thoughts, urges and emotions, and what these might be telling you.


One of the barriers hindering our perceptivity is a lack of focus on ourselves in the present moment. Life moves fast, and as we rush from place to place and from task to task, there’s often little time leftover to pause and simply check in with ourselves.

In order to do this, try conducting a little self-observation from time to time. A self-observation can be done at any time, so long as you have a quiet space and a few minutes to spare. Follow this four-step process, and as you improve your perceptivity, you’re bound to discover a few things of which you may not have been aware.


  • First, BECOME PRESENT. Close your eyes, and begin to breathe deeply. Feel your body relax. Bring yourself fully to the present moment 
  • Once you’re there, OBJECTIVELY NOTICE. Begin paying close attention, one at a time, to your sensations, thoughts, urges and/or emotions. Do not try to analyze them – simply notice them. For example, notice “I feel stiff in my lower back” – NOT “I feel stiff in my lower back, probably because I moved furniture yesterday.”
  • As you do this, REDIRECT YOUR MIND AS NEEDED. If your mind wanders away from your current sensations, thoughts, urges and/or emotions, bring it back to focus fully on yourself in the present moment.
  • And finally, RECORD YOUR NOTICINGS. At the end, write down as much as you can remember from your observation. Use as much detail as possible. This will be used later, in the interpretation phase.



In addition to improving your understanding of yourself, you can also improve your understanding of others: their thoughts, needs, emotions and actions.

This can be done through perceptive listening. Perceptive listening is not just hearing and thinking about the words being said in conversation but also considering what the other person may be thinking or how they are acting as they speak. Specifically, observe the following four things as the person speaks:


First, observe the other person’s BODY LANGUAGE. Surprisingly, about 90% of human communication is nonverbal. Therefore, it is essential to be skilled at ‘reading’ others’ body language to understand them more fully. When observing someone’s body language, look for the following:

Three other factors to observe in order to enhance your perceptive listening are: 




  • Is the person talking louder or more quietly than normal? 
  • Is the person using lots of filler words like “um” and “uh”? 
  • Is the person’s tone conveying an emotion that is different from their words? 
  • Is the person giving extremely short responses? 
  • Is the person giving long, winding responses? 
  • Is the person giving long, detailed responses?
  • Is the person using a lot of big words or jargon to show how much they know about a topic?
  • Is the person including judgmental words in an otherwise seemingly normal statement?
  • Is the person using friendly, disarming language?



Up to this point, everything we’ve discussed has been the first phase of perceptivity: OBSERVATION. Once you’ve made observations, either of yourself or others, the second phase is to INTERPRET those observations. This involves coming up with possible explanations of the meaning of what you observed. Follow this three-step process to interpret your observations:

First, GATHER the noticings you recorded from your observations – of yourself or someone else.

Then, LOOK FOR PATTERNS. For example, do you often notice yourself thinking negatively? Or, do a person’s facial expressions, hand movements and tone of voice all align to send you a similar message?

Finally, DIG DEEPER into thoughts, emotions or actions that seem important. Consider why you or the other person may have felt, done or thought these things.


Working through this observation and interpretation may take some time and effort up front, but if you do it enough times, it’ll start to occur more naturally. You’ll find that something which may have gone right over your head in the past is suddenly catching your eye, causing you to take pause and reflect. And once you’ve mastered this important social-emotional skill, it won’t be long until you begin to notice all the perks that come with it: greater self-awareness, stronger relationships and improved performance at work. So grab your magnifying glass and clipboard and begin to take note!

(For more information on strategies to improve social and emotional skills, visit to learn more about how to improve these skills.)

    • November 3, 2019
  •    BY Tara Laughlin, Ed.D. (Contributor)
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