Have you ever been in a meeting where, based on what you see and hear, you expect the meeting to be playing out in one way but instead it is going in another direction entirely? You suspect something is going on beneath the surface and that you are missing something important that would make sense of the situation. You need to make something that is invisible to you visible, but how?
1. Flip the Background and Foreground. In this picture , do you see the white pillars or the shadow profiles of pairs of people standing with their heads leaning toward each other? It depends on what you think is the foreground (the figure) and what you think is the background. Maybe the key you are missing to explain a situation will become more visible if you bring something from the background forward. For example, maybe you see the features of a product as the foreground discussion and the question of who will implement the product as background. Maybe if you flip them, the meeting dynamics will make more sense to you.
2. Look at Non-Verbal Cues for Clues. You may have noticed that when you get on an elevator, people tend to space themselves to maintain personal distance as each new person gets on or off. If you get on an elevator and there are only two people and they are standing right next to each other, you unconsciously assume they have some social connection. When you are in a meeting, you can learn a lot by observing where people sit relative to each other and the degree to which their hand gestures and body movements mirror those of other people in the room (movement synchrony). What you may be missing are the many non-verbal cues that can give you clues to what people aren’t saying, but are still acting upon in their visible decisions.
3. Identify the Invisible Force at Work. Astronomers posit the existence of something they can’t see by observing its influence on things they can see. I was once involved in a decision making process in which I puzzled for weeks about the improbable alliance of people who I had found in previous interactions to have quite opposing views. I finally discovered that the invisible force at work in their alliance was based on the fact they had all graduated from the same elite school at about the same time 20 years earlier.
4. Make Sure Concentration Isn’t a Distraction. Sometimes we are so focused that we concentrate on one thing to the exclusion of all others. Take this simple Awareness Test. How did you do? Don’t let concentration on the task at hand make important information invisible. Misplaced concentration (distraction) is what the magician uses to create an illusion. Take a minute to shift your concentration to other factors and make them visible.
5. Consider Cultural Differences. Sometimes the missing piece of the puzzle is a cultural difference you are not factoring into the picture. Orientation to time, hierarchy, personal space, humor, formality, etc. vary widely across cultures. In our increasingly nomadic and globalized economy, these differences pop up often when you least expect it. Check out your cultural assumptions so that they are visible to you.
If you think about it, many important things are essentially invisible – gravity, love, even the atoms that make up most of what we think of as visible. Next time you can’t figure out what is going on, try to make the invisible visible in some way and see what you are missing.