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Sensory Acuity

Sensory acuity is about developing greater sensory awareness and the ability to notice, monitor, and make sense of the external cues from other people. 

Leaders are often trained to focus on the auditory cues that can be picked up in the way another person expresses themselves, including volume, tone, speed, pauses, rhythm and choice of language. However, this is only part of the equation because each person has their own unique body language that they use to give non-verbal expression to their experiences and emotions. 


By learning to calibrate people as they access different experiences, it is possible to recognise each individual’s characteristics and begin to accurately read and decipher their non-verbal signals. For a leader, this is particularly powerful and helps them to build and maintain rapport and empathy at a deeper, often unconscious, level with other people. It is also beneficial in promoting influence and can accelerate the pace of development and change.


Calibration is the process of developing sensory awareness to be able to detect differences and subtle movements in another person’s physiology. 

Whenever an internal representation shifts something will also shift in a person’s external behaviour. Large movements, such as folding arms, crossing legs or changing posture by leaning backwards or forwards are easy to detect. Small finer shifts are more difficult to detect and require a high level of awareness. However, there are some standard cues to look for:

  • Breathing changes

  • Skin colour changes

  • Muscle changes

  • Dilation of pupils

Breathing changes 

A person’s breathing patterns tells a great deal about them and a change in breathing usually indicates a change in their internal state.

  • Notice where they breathe – do they breathe in their chest or from their stomach?

  • Try to detect differences in the tempo of breathing.

  • Notice the pattern of breathing while in conversation – if it changes, it’s a signal that an internal state has shifted in some way.


Skin colour changes

Think in terms of contrast - a person’s face does not have just one colour. There are areas of pink, cream, brown, grey, green, blue etc. that constantly change as a person talks. Facial colours tend to reflect the internal state of the person. Try changing the subject matter of a conversation and notice the changes in colour of the other person’s face.

Muscle changes

Facial muscles change with tension and relaxation to reflect internal states. Watch specifically the small muscles around the mouth, at the jaw line and at the outer corners of the eyes. Each person will respond in their own way to their own internal state but, once you start looking for it, the pattern will be relatively easy to identify.

Pupil dilation

The pupils in a person’s eyes will typically contract (narrow) and dilate (widen) in response to exposure to light but they will also react involuntarily to other factors, including conflict, decision making and changes in their attention and interest.

How to develop sensory acuity

Subtle changes in skin colour, pupil dilation, breathing, arm and leg movement etc. are all a lot for a leader to notice and require a refined level of observation. However, it gets much easier with practice and can bring many benefits, such as increased rapport and improved influence. 


Over time, a leader with good sensory acuity will start to pick up patterns in other people's responses without having to think about it. This ultimately feeds their intuition, supports their learning and creates a more relaxed intuitive approach to their personal well-being.

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The way to develop sensory acuity is through a specific activity that expands peripheral vision while staying focussed on a central object. The process is simple but needs to be practised regularly to build and develop greater sensory acuity over time.

Activity (1)

  • Sit comfortably and focus on a spot on the wall in front of you

  • Relax your breathing

  • Expand your awareness to include half a metre either side of the spot - while staying focussed on the spot

  • Expand your awareness to include one metre either side of the spot - while staying focussed on the spot

  • Now expand your awareness to two metres - while staying focussed on the spot


Activity (2)

  • Stretch your arms out in front of your body with thumbs touching and pointing up

  • Focus on the end of your thumbs and keep looking at that spot

  • Now move your arms apart (slowly) keeping them stretched and keeping the thumbs pointing up

  • As you move your arms - keep focus on the original spot in front of you but also be aware of where your thumbs are on either side

Typically, a person should be able to move their thumbs back in line with their shoulders and still be able to see them in their peripheral vision. As their sensory acuity develops, they are likely to be able to extend their arms behind them and still be able to see their thumbs in peripheral vision. This process will give someone a heightened expanded awareness in the visual field and help them be more alert to subtle changes when they interact with another person.

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