When have you last looked someone in the eyes, deeply, consciously, deliberately, silently? Try it out, right now! How does it feel? Comfortable? Exposed? Scary? What is being communicated, without words?
How well can you describe the person sitting next to you? Your partner, your child? I still remember the shock I felt when a photographer, telling about his work with the New York Police Department for missing children, pointed out that a large majority of parents are unable to accurately describe their missing children!
Thinking about it I started to wonder how much it has to do with the fact that we do not often sit facing one another! We sit in cars, next to each other; we sit in front of the television, next to each other; we sit in front of our computer screens, alone … So perhaps it is not surprising that we are no longer able to describe those around us. By the way, that was back in the early 2000s, before everyone had their face glued to the screen of their smart phone. Even in restaurants and at dinner tables it seems more and more common to converse remotely with ‘friends’ in the virtual space that with those in whose physical presence we are. Human interaction is increasingly being replaced by interactions in the virtual space. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry when I heard that people playing Pokemon Go fall into ponds and do all kinds of other truly stupid things because they are so focused on the little screen that they no longer notice the real world.
Yet what does it mean, not to be seen? How does it make you feel if you are talking to someone and they do not make eye contact (try it out!)? Is it much different from being treated like a number rather than an individual?
How does it feel to be seen! Performance artist Marina Abramović conducted a very interesting experiment at the Museum for Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2010: for 17 days, 8 to 10 hours every day, she sat on a chair, inviting visitors to sit opposite her and, silently, look in her eyes; as long or as short as they liked. While there was initial scepticism, her performance attracted a record 850,000 visitors, many of whom queued up for hours and hours, some repeatedly, to ‘be seen’. For many it was a highly emotional experience and tears flowed freely. We are not used to being looked at so intently, and it is not for nothing that the eyes are often referred to as ‘the windows to our souls. If you are intrigued you may want to watch ashort documentary made by the BBC or watch Marina’s TED talk from March 2015.
Dorothea Ernst, formerly Senior Director Sustainability at Philips Corporate Technologies and author of the remarkable book “Personal and Organisational Transformation Towards Sustainability: Walking a Twin-Path” (as well as friend of the ILF) recently asked participants of the 100 odd participants of Green Economy Coalition Meeting to turn to one another and look into each others eyes, silently, for 2 minutes. The energy released, and the revitalising effect of this brief episode were quite remarkable. And yes, there were some who choose not to engage, and yes, this intervention required a lot of courage, trust, and credibility on Dorothea’s part.
To see and be seen. Being aware, noticing things. Are not ‘observation’ and ‘looking at the same thing as everyone else yet seeing something different’ key ingredients for successful innovation? In order to see we need to look, to observe, to pay attention. If we want to truly see what is there we also need to let go of pre-conceived ideas and assumptions, and become more aware of the whole range of cognitive biases we all fall prey to. (You may want to read “The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational” that I found both enlightening and somewhat alarming.) Whether we want to spot latent customer needs, the degree of engagement in our organisation, or the emotional state of our friends and family.
To see, and be seen. Does it matter? I certainly believe so. Do you?