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I See You: The Power and Limits to Noticing Others

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

with co-authors Arne Carlsen and Sally Maitlis

Connecting with others requires noticing people’s existence. Seeing someone grants them their humanity, and noticing is a base condition for interrelating. During this time of extreme uncertainty and fear, we can feel threatened, causing us to close in and shut down. Yet all around us are people doing work that is allowing us and others around us to carry on. We think it is a time to intentionally notice and honor the people who are making this ongoing tragedy, as hard as it is, more livable. They are the backbone, the backstage, the backup that helps people and organizations carry on despite the challenges, setbacks and despair that mark these times. What does our noticing of others involve?

An Experiment

Our concern that we were not doing sufficient noticing of others as our own preoccupations and worries set in led us to try an experiment. For 48 hours we challenged ourselves with a NOTICING INTERVENTION to intentionally direct our attention to the people who were doing work that so often goes unseen. We wanted to learn our way into being in a more alert and caring state, hoping that this might convert into thoughts, actions and feelings that were beneficial to others, and maybe to ourselves.

What We Learned

1. We notice others who are invisibly helping by deliberately paying attention. When people are doing work that is not physically visible, it is easy to remain blind to them. We need routines and reminders that put us in touch with their presence and their impact. This can be as simple as stopping for a moment and asking someone we seldom connect with how their day is, how they cope, what they struggle with, even what they are afraid of. It could also involve simply wondering about how the services we take for granted in the everyday are provided and how the people behind them, whether near or distant, are faring. Noticing, at the very least, involves a lingering: What’s it like being you, now?

2. We notice people’s contributions through reading emails and notifications. In a work setting, traces of invisible others’ positive impact are often nested in notifications. For example, we see the Friday email at 10 PM explaining how licensed software for online teaching is now fully integrated. Someone made that happen. We see an administrative leader who just lost her dad respond to the worries of students with a stream of careful responses and news updates. We see someone stretching to include newcomers in the leave of absence payments from their organization. By tuning in to information that is already available, we notice people’s heroic and quietly helpful actions.

3. We notice through attending to media of all kinds. Much of our noticing is indirect: the media is increasingly surfacing examples of the unsung heroes, beyond the examples of health care workers who are under unimaginable strain. It is the story of a young mother with a low-paid store job, working long hours in high-risk environment, proud to be in the front line. It includes stories of sewage workers who deal with congestions and flowbacks and hope they can remain in the dark and that we will never need to hear of them. It is group of 20 hospital engineers responsible for maintaining 11000 instruments who work at full capacity and worry about what will happen down the line if some of them get infected. It is seen in the individuals who have been laid off from their jobs and who offer their services as volunteers while they wait for organizations to start hiring again.

4. We notice through students a shared togetherness. We notice how students awaken to the possibilities and effects of everyday good deeds. We notice that they are encouraged when seeing many others stepping up, whether helping with groceries, calling someone, or inquiring about another’s pain. Students talk about an increased realization of togetherness, how conversations have shifted to what is meaningful, how they separate people from the roles that they hold. They talk about a growing awareness of our shared predicaments and vulnerabilities, of attending to and understanding larger societal systems, and the hope that incipient solidarity projects will translate to care for humankind and the planet.

5. We notice systemic failure and ugliness. Along with noticing all those who step up and support us, come darker reminders. This goes beyond the despair of hoarding or the carelessness of those rejecting social isolation and putting others at risk. We notice the fragilities associated with neglect and lack of public infrastructure. We notice greed, hypocrisy, incessant lying and cover ups from people in power. Next to those who see windows of opportunity for demonstrating acts of solidarity and humanity are those who do the opposite. Will well-off organizations who lay off their support staff without social benefits still be able to tout their moral values? How do we respond when our solidarity is tested?

The Need to Move Beyond Noticing

We see how much becomes visible when we take the time to notice others. And we also notice that noticing in itself may not be enough. For some of the backbone heroes, like nurses, store workers, cleaners or sewage handlers, our appreciation and clapping may initially feel supportive but also come to ring hollow. The social valuing that follows noticing may have limited effects if not accompanied by a recognition of the inequality and injustice that pervades our societies. As one British newspaper observed, “This doesn’t mean we should stop clapping for carers, but it’s worth asking how every voice saying "thank you" can also demand a future where nurses aren’t visiting food banks” (The Independent online, March 27, 2020). Noticing is a crucial first step, but when noticing enables us to experience the felt mutuality of a larger “we”, connects us to a cause, and increases our systemic awareness, sustainable change can become a real possibility.

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