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  • Writer's pictureAlan Sieler

On Becoming a Different and More Powerful Observer

by Alan Sieler

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are"

Leaders and managers are observers of events, circumstances and people. The way they observe will determine both what they observe how they act. This has a significant impact on organisational morale, productivity and the long-term future of the organisation.

The development of leadership and managerial competence revolves around becoming a more acute and astute observer. But what does it mean to be an observer, and what is the notion of becoming a more powerful observer?


In the context of becoming a more powerful observer, power is defined as: the capacity to take more effective action; i.e, action which produces appropriate results.

Power is not regarded as power over, but as power for - not to gain advantage over others, but rather to enhance the well-being and learning of others and their capacity to contribute in a sustained manner to organisational growth and productivity.


Our traditional approach to learning concentrates on what is observed. We not only speak of "it", "them", "they", "her", and "him", but also express our opinions about our observations. The tradition in which we have come to understand observing assumes that what we observe is independent of the observer. This tradition has taught us to take our observations for granted, and implicitly for us to believe that what we observe, especially about people, exists.

However we rarely ask the following questions:

  • "How come I observe what I observe?"

  • "What is it about me as an observer that I see and hear things the way I do?"

Second Order Learning

In taking an approach to observing which seeks to answer the above questions we enter into some major considerations about learning. To become more astute as an observer requires engaging in second order learning and going beyond our traditional approach to learning, understanding and observing. The nature of this different approach is illustrated below:

We are constantly interested in getting results, or gaining desired outcomes, so that things improve and we move forward and progress. When we are dissatisfied with the results we typically may reflect upon our action, or behaviour, and review how we could have done things differently which could have produced more satisfactory results.

Engaging in this reflection and review is a learning process in which there is a willingness and an openness to change what we have been doing. This ability to stand back and reconsider can place us in a more advantageous position about taking effective action in future situations. This is a valid and important form of learning and is termed first-order learning.

However, in this approach we take our observations for granted; it does not deal with the issue of exploring what is behind me observing circumstances in the way I do. Thus, the role of the observer is neglected in first order learning.

Potentially a more powerful form of learning is available to us if we reflect in a different way - the focus of reflection being not upon the action, but on the observer and the way he or she views the situation. This takes us to the heart of the notion of the observer and second-order learning.

Observing is Always Interpreting

As observers we always will view a situation from a particular perspective and have a point of view. However, our tradition of observing has rarely encouraged us to take a look at the position from which we observe and how that will influence the particular viewpoint we take.

When we engage in second order learning the focus is not directly on the action or the behaviour of the observer, but on how the observer observes. The way we observe will determine what we observe, and this, in turn, determines the courses of action we will see available to us.

When we take this approach we are in the territory of a higher order of learning - second order learning. Observing how we observe opens new possibilities because we hone directly in on the issue of "How come I see things this way."

Second-order learning recognises that when we observe, we are always making interpretations of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But what is the process by which we observe and make interpretations?


We live in a tradition that tells us that what we see and hear is available to us because of our senses. Whilst this is important, second order learning goes one step further and suggests that do not only see with our eyes and listen with our ears.

What we see and hear becomes available to us through the distinctions we have available. Distinctions allow us to be aware of things which stand out from their context or background.

For example, why is it that the heavens that I will see on a clear night will be the same, and yet also different, to the heavens observed by an astronomer and an astrologer? However, the night sky that they observe becomes more available to me once they point out what they observe and it begins to stand out for me from the background. The features of the night sky they make available to me is the distinctions they have available to them as a result of the learning and experience.

Language, experience and learning all play a key role in distinctions. There is a world that exists independently of us. There is an "it", "them", "they", "he" and "she" existing independently of us. However, we always view things and people through the distinctions we have available and this is how we make our interpretations.

The nature of existence of people and things is their existence for us, and is always an interpretation. The circumstances and situations we observe is one that we bring forth. People and things become present for us based on the distinctions available to us when we make our observations.


Learning is central to becoming a different observer. Formal learning and learning through life's experiences both provide us with new sets of distinctions. We can think of distinctions as being like a spotlight, which reveal what was already there but was unavailable to us and we were previously not aware of. They allow us to view something from a different perspective and so open for us a different world. We become a different observer.

But what distinctions are worth learning so that we can become a more powerful observer? Let's return to the quotation at the beginning of the article: "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

The last two words "..we are" provide an important clue to a powerful set of distinctions. These two words have implicit in them the idea of being. What is it to be a human being? What is the nature of our being? Of what is our "beingness" made of or constituted?

These questions are integral to second order learning. When we engage in second order learning we are considering the nature of our being. The way we observe, the type of observer we are, is determined by the nature of our being.

What is the nature of our being? This has been the interest of many philosophers and there is no definite answer to this question - only interpretations. The interpretation offered here is that our being consists of a continual inter-relationship between three arenas or domains - language, emotions and body.

These are a set of distinctions for developing a particular interpretation to the question of "What is it to be a human being?" It is contended that this is a key set of distinctions for developing second-order learning and addressing the question "How come I observe things the way I do?".

Language, emotions and body

The way we use language, and the distinctions we have available to us through language, heavily shape how we view a situation. Within the arena of language we can learn new distinctions and also observe how our use of language creates our reality and can generate more productive realities.

Our emotions colour how we see the world. We are always in some emotional state, and some emotions can be more pervasive than others. Observing our emotions, how they contribute to generating our reality, and how we can manage them, is pivotal in second-order learning and becoming a more powerful observer.

A much neglected part of our learning about our being is the domain of the body. We embody our moods as well as our attitudes and expectations. Over time we subtly configure our body to reflect these and this configuration perpetuates our perspectives and orientation in life. To neglect the body as a distinction and a source of important of learning is to seriously short change ourselves in moving towards becoming a more powerful observer.

The world we observe

Problems, possibilities and solutions do not exist independently of the observer. Who or what we regard as a problem, thepossibilities we see for change, improvement and growth, and the solutions we think will work, depend on the type of observer we are. When we shift how we observe, we see a different world of problems, possibilities and solutions.

In a world that is increasingly requiring greater flexibility and adaptability to ever changing circumstances, being aware how we observe is going to become more relevant as key competence for leaders and managers.

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