How to observe weak signals

with No Comments

The first time you experience a weak signal you won’t notice it. Simply because you had no idea that there was something to notice. What usually happens is that you run into a complicated situation, and when you look back at how you got there, you realise there had been early warning signs that you hadn’t paid attention to. So you resolve to pay better attention next time.

Weak signals are the behaviours or events that seem insignificant at first sight, but aren’t. They repeat and build up over time until you need to react to them. Like a string of broken promises, “I’m sorry I didn’t make the payment on time. I will pay you next week, I promise.”

What gets your attention

Sometimes noticing weak signals starts with a feeling you have that something is off. When you stop and think about it, you realise that it was something someone said or did, or didn’t say or do, or how they said or did it, that wasn’t quite what you expected. Like someone who always says hello when they come in, but they didn’t do it today. Or it wasn’t what you would consider to be normal in that situation. Like someone who uses a company credit card to pay for personal purchases.

So you start paying attention, and if you observe the same signal again, you start anticipating how the situation might evolve. If that person keeps not saying hello, what’s going on there? If that other person keeps using the company credit card, where will it lead to? Should you say or do something, check in if everything is okay or if help is needed?

Being surprised

What you expect plays a big role in what signals you pick up and how you interpret them. It’s the surprise that comes from something happening that you didn’t expect that gets your attention. Everyone has different expectations of the situation that they’re in, formed by their experience, their culture and their social norms.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Without expectations, you take things at face value because you won’t know what could come next. This happens when you’re young or starting on something new – you need experience in order to build expectations. When I moved into my current home, I didn’t know that a lot of the installed fixtures were of poor quality. Six years and many repairs later, I am no longer surprised when something breaks down and the person who comes in to replace it says, “That wasn’t installed properly, no wonder it’s broken…”

Seeing and interpreting

It sounds like a tautology, but you can only observe signals that are visible – behaviour and events that anyone can see. You cannot observe the inner motivations, concerns or considerations of another person. You may infer these from your observations, but you need to keep those well-separated: a signal is something that is visible to others, not your own interpretation of it.

The reason that this matters is that you’re looking to understand and predict what is going to happen next. Your interpretation may or may not be correct, but you can increase the chances of it being correct by being clear on what you observe.

What makes things complicated is that your expectations are a part of you, and they determine what you notice about another person. This is why observing weak signals should be done with care, and interpreting them even more so. Although you cannot fully separate out your own role in the observation, you can reflect on it, and consider how it affects your interpretation of the situation. If the signals are valid, other people should be able to pick them up as well.

Observing actively

Some people are better at observing signals that others. Those people may be described as perceptive, intuitive, empathic, or having good people skills. Some people are more interested in the behaviour of others, or tend to observe before they interact in a new situation. That isn’t to say that others cannot observe weak signals. If you are typically less inclined to observe, you could choose to put yourself in ‘observation mode’ when it’s needed.

Being in ‘observation mode’ makes a huge difference to how many signals you pick up. On a normal day in a normal office job, detecting signals isn’t on your mind as you work your way through your to-do list. But in some roles, being alert to signals is part of the job. Think of doctors diagnosing patients, diplomats conducting negotiations or accountants auditing financial records. In other cases, being alert is part of the current activity you are engaged in, such as investors assessing business pitches, interviewers assessing job applicants or company boards assessing proposals from the management team.

When you are alert, you are actively scanning for and interpreting the signals in front of you, either in the behaviour that you see or the information that you review. You are forming a judgement and responding in real time. When you are not alert, there is a moment of realisation, perhaps triggered by a reflection on an activity or situation, usually after the fact. You have more time to form a judgement and response.

Forming a response

In both cases, it is important to realise that forming a response isn’t the same as having a knee-jerk reaction. To do this, you need to mentally step back from the situation, to ‘step off the dance floor and go up on the balcony to observe the dancing’.

Photo by Gama. Films on Unsplash

The process to follow is ‘Sense-Analyse-Respond’, because you need to think about the relationship between cause and effect, and choose from one of multiple possible responses.

  • Sense: Become aware of your reaction – surprise, discomfort, concern, hope – and the behavioural signals that are causing it. What did you observe?
  • Analyse: What are the possible causes and effects of the behaviour you are observing? How do those match your desired outcome? Do you want to encourage more of this behaviour, or discourage it?
  • Respond: If you want to move the situation towards a desired outcome or away from an undesired outcome, what would be an appropriate response? When and how would it be best to respond?

Being selective

Now that you are aware that weak signals exist, you may be tempted to go looking for them everywhere you go. But not everything that happens is a signal, nor does every signal require a response. Our brains are designed to filter out the mundane and the repetitive in order to preserve our attention for the things that matter. It’s only when behaviour repeats that it’s worth stepping back to reflect if there might be a pattern developing. In that case, you could start looking out for more signals, analyse where they might lead to, then determine if and how you would respond to them.

© 2021 Veridia Consulting