Practice Spotting: a simple and powerful way to improve

5 minute read

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A large amount of the interaction and activities we do with others is mediated by our own and their behaviours. We spend many years of our lives to fine-tune these behaviours, and we still do: “If only I did that differently…”, “I think I could have handled that better…”, “Wow how did you manage to do that…”, “If only I was…”, are all common thoughts we have often ourselves. Even more if we are the kind of person that has a high level of self-awareness — or self-criticism.

These behaviours can be very simple sometimes, they can be an idea or a principle we acquired at some point in our life. Sometimes we have behaviours that aren’t positive or that could be improved. Even these come from the idea that it’s the best we can do, and sometimes we feel very ‘reactive’ and it’s hard to control that. 

Practices

When these behaviours are shared with others, they tend to take more structured forms: they become advices, policies, and laws. Yet, there’s value in the simplest forms: that’s what we call practices. An automated behaviour is a practice that has been learned and automated to the point we don’t have to think about doing it anymore.

Practices are learned intentional patterns of action that are aimed to produce a positive impact. 

It might sound abstract, so let’s make a few examples.

The ability to set boundaries is a practice. It means that we are intentional in being explicit when we interact and work with other in defining the limits of our interest and involvement. Learning it can start by noticing when we missed setting a useful boundary, then getting to set some simple ones, up to being able to define important boundaries in our life.

Listening is another good practice. This is one widely known and with a very broad scope, but still it’s incredibly useful. Listen more, pay attention, truly listen. Learning it can start by noticing when we overwhelm conversations with our chatter, then gets to the ability to ask for the other side of things, up to being able to find a natural balance.

Practices have the following characteristics:

  • They tend to be simple yet meaningful: a practice isn’t a complex series of actions. They can be hard to do or even understand, but they aren’t usually complicated.
  • They can be discussed and shared: a practice is something that can be discussed and analyzed together with other people, and they can create a common ground in a group.
  • They can be learned and improved: a practice can be acquired by a person that has never done it before. It’s not an innate skill. Learning usually starts with noticing, and once acquired in its simplest form can be refined to get better at it.

The old problem of subjectivity

The problem is: we are very bad at evaluating ourselves. We overestimate our skills on one side with Dunning-Kruger, we underestimate our skills on the other side with the impostor syndrome, and in every other instance we have the issue of plain old subjectivity.

Even the people that did a lot of work on themselves to achieve a wider and more balanced perspective on who they are, even in a hypothetical situation of perfect objectivity, we still need to account for one thing: the perception of other people.

The spotter

There’s an approach that is used across many disciplines and many fields to offset subjectivity. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing that we can pragmatically do: work with another person to get the external perspective we need.

The spotter is a person that helps us to identify the good practices we do.

They have fine-tuned a specific skill: the ability to spot other people’s explicit and implicit talents, and reflect these talents back to them so they can see their value.

I’m sure this is something we have all experienced at some point in our lives, when we had that person that pointed out back to us something good we do which we didn’t consider a big deal. 

Spotting in itself is a practice, as such can be done intentionally, learned, and then made automated. Spotting is an activity that involves two people: one is the person that does the practice, one is the person spotting it and making it explicit.

Spotting can happen in different ways:

  • Spotting by seeing — the spotter happens to be in a social context with other people and realizes that something that is happening is worth making explicit as a practice.
  • Spotting by storytelling — the spotter listens to a story by another person, and within that story identifies the practices that the person has done.
  • Spotting by interacting — this is the hardest thing because the spotter is not an anymore an external observer, but was an active part in the interaction. It’s usually something that requires a higher skill level, but it’s achievable.

How to find a good spotter

The beauty of this approach is that it can be very enriching and deep, and at the same time it’s very simple to begin. The question then becomes: how to identify a good person to be your spotter?

The first step is to start practicing spotting on others yourself. You don’t have to be formal with other people, just start doing it and reflecting back to them: “That thing you did was very good!” and make it explicit.

At the same time you can look for another person that you feel comfortable with and that you can practice spotting for each other. An ideal person would be someone that has already a good ability to listen, and is also around you for enough time to be able to see your own behaviours.

At a later point, you can extend this practice to the whole team, so it creates an environment of growth and explicit awareness of each other’s strengths.

What do to with the practices spotted?

Once the spotter has identified good practices, it’s worth having a discussion together about this. This helps for many reasons:

  • The individual now gets a confirmation they are doing something positive they weren’t aware of, or were partially aware of.
  • Making it explicit and giving it shape makes the practice conscious. As such it can be more easily improved.
  • The practice can now be refined and shared with more people. Who might be interested? Do we want to suggest it to the whole team?

Give practice spotting a try. Its long term impact will improve sensibly your team and your health.


Thanks to Daniel Szuc, Jo Wong, and Jennifer Fabrizi for reviewing this article and providing the excellent conversations around Make Meaningful Work that helped shape the practice.