Q&A: The Art of Perception founder and President Amy Herman

Humans have vision, but unintended bias often gets in the way of “seeing.” Amy Herman helps business leaders use fine art to get past the brain’s pre-frontal cortex functions (analyzing tasks, setting priorities) and get right to objective facts.

Herman is a lawyer and art historian who uses works of art to sharpen observation, analysis and communication skills. By showing people how to look closely at paintings, sculpture and photography, Herman helps hone “visual intelligence” to recognize the most pertinent and useful information as well as recognize biases that impede optimal decision-making.

Herman developed the Art of Perception seminar in 2000 to improve medical students’ observation and communication skills with their patients when she was head of education at the Frick Collection in New York City. She leads trainees on a highly participatory journey designed to sharpen their perception and communication aptitude by viewing and describing details in artwork — learning to objectively see and describe to others.

She subsequently adapted the program for a wide range of professionals and leads sessions internationally for clients ranging from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Scotland Yard to Fortune 500 companies. Her book, “Visual Intelligence,” was published in May 2016.

Herman will lead a session designed to help participants hone their visual intelligence at the NRF PROTECT conference in Dallas, June 11-13.

How does your work with law enforcement, the intelligence community and physicians benefit retailers?

Anyone who is in the “people business” can benefit from the Art of Perception training. Retailers are on the front lines in so many ways — security, theft prevention, interaction with vendors, customers and clients. While retailers’ presence is both digital and in bricks-and-mortar, enhanced communication and perception skills are of paramount importance in each.

You stress the disconnect between what we see and what we say when describing what we see. Why is there a disconnect and why is this an important key to your message?

I wish I had the perfect answer. In all my training, I have noticed a consistent breakdown of the effective communication of what we observe. Something gets lost between observation and speaking, writing and texting. I really don’t know what it is, so I am using art to try to fill that gap.

We have so many means of communicating but something is still getting lost, so I am renewing the focus on what we say as much as on how we say it. Works of art are a different set of data that can be the vehicle to rethinking how we communicate.

Why do we miss the obvious?

Personal experience plays a large role in how you feel about something. Sometimes you need to ask yourself if you’re being influenced by biases. These can be cultural or just inherent likes and dislikes.

How do these communication skills facilitate problem solving among department colleagues and/or an enterprise?

First, we need to understand that no two people see anything the same way. If we are open to seeking out multiple perspectives, we can better visualize creative thinking and problem solving. Quite simply, multiple perspectives make for better decision making.

What do you do to help clients improve their observational skills?

I help my clients improve observational skills by asking them to remove two words from their vocabularies: “obviously” and “clearly.” The world is so complex that almost nothing is “obvious” and even less is “clear.” Be more explicit when making an assumption or inference so that everyone is on the same page.

I also ask them to refrain from using technology for 15 minutes a day. Do something else and see how much you observe. Make a cup of coffee, take a walk, meet with a colleague. It is amazing how you can renew your sense of observation by just looking up.

How are observations different from perceptions?

Observations of the five senses — not just sight — inform perceptions and perceptions inform inferences. If you find yourself constantly making inferences, you need to step back to make sure the inference can be substantiated by perceptions reached from the observations of the five senses.

Can a person try too hard to be observant?

Yes. When we try to be too observant, we tend to focus on the details and lose the big picture. I think that is dangerous. No one ever really masters observational skills. It is a balance of noticing the relevant small details as they relate to the big picture.

Regarding situational awareness: How do we put a priority on what we observe?

It comes from experience, and often trusting your gut. Situational awareness is often described as a sixth sense, especially when it comes to perceiving danger. It is important to remember that the sixth sense is highly subjective. You need to be able to articulate that sixth sense as accurately as possible and act on it when practicing situational awareness.

Do different professions think differently? Does a retail CEO have a different process from that of law enforcement, an investment banker or a physician?

Yes, it seems that different professions see things differently but leaders have similar ways of viewing the world. Different professions put varying emphasis on articulating details in relation to the big picture. A trend I have seen among great leaders is that they seem to consider the impact of their words and communications and more often than not, they are really good listeners.

What are some takeaways from the Art of Perception training sessions?

My two overarching takeaways from every session, no matter what the profession, are as follows: When you leave the session, you are thinking differently about your work in some facet, and I want the Art of Perception to help you convert observable details in actionable knowledge.

One of the things I enjoy most about leading this program is the ability to customize the presentation. I have thousands of images. I like to speak with those in the profession to determine the greatest challenges they are facing and then I find works of art to illustrate the issues and possible solutions. The methodology is always the same but the content changes for each session.

Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.