Amy Herman: The big picture

Learning how to observe works of art can be a powerful exercise for developing leadership skills, says art historian Amy Herman.

Amy HermanHow much can you tell about people just by shaking their hands? When observation skills are finely honed and joined with skills in communication, you can perceive a great deal through your five senses, said Amy Herman, who teaches a three-hour course called “The Art of Perception.” Even seasoned professionals can learn to look anew at both details and the big picture, she said.

Herman created and teaches “The Art of Perception,” in which she uses works of art to strengthen observation and communication skills in medical, law enforcement and other professionals.

For 11 years, Herman was head of education for The Frick Collection, an art museum in New York City, where she developed the course. She is currently director of educational development for the New York City public television station Thirteen/WNET.

She holds a master’s degree in art history from Hunter College and earned a law degree at George Washington University. Her students in “The Art of Perception” have included members of the U.S. Secret Service, the New York City Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Herman spoke with Faith & Leadership about the leadership training she offers through “The Art of Perception.” The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: What do you teach students using art that they couldn’t learn elsewhere?

The course was initially established in observation and perception skills. Over the course of 10 years, I’ve realized that you could have the best observation skills in the world, but if you’re not an effective communicator, it doesn’t do you any good.

I use art because it’s a nonthreatening vehicle. Everybody sees something when they look at a work of art. I use the art either as a setting in a medical clinic, or I use it as a potential crime scene. I use the journalistic method of who, what, where, why and when.

“Tell me what you see. Where are they? Do you know what time of day it is? Can you tell me any details?” I want them to focus on details as well as the big picture. In the second part of the exercise, they have to articulate their analysis as succinctly ... as possible in a very short amount of time, because life does not afford you the luxury of a lot of time.

I’m not discussing art history. I’m not discussing artists, or the context, or even the year or the style it was painted in. I use works of art as confirmable visual data, and I apply it to a specific profession.

Q: Describe what happens when you have a group walk into a gallery.

Before they go into the gallery, I have about an hour with them in a conference room. I can’t just take them into the gallery and say, “Let’s start talking.” I show them works of art. Some of them are famous, and some of them aren’t. I have to show them that, even if they’re not schooled in art history, everyone sees something. You can say something about what you see. The works that I pick are visually complex or interesting to look at, so somebody always has something to say. It’s not an acceptable answer to say, “I don’t know.”

If you’re in those professions and you’re taking this professional training, you have to see something. After that hour of asking questions and setting the scene for the investigation, we go into the galleries. I divide the group into pairs or trios and I assign them each a work of art. They have six minutes with the work of art. In that time they have to analyze it. They’re not allowed to read the labels; they have to analyze all the visual information, big picture down to small details. At the end of six minutes, the whole group reconvenes in front of the individual works and they have to present their findings to their colleagues.

Q: Could you describe a work of art that you’ve used and what a perceptive viewer might see in it, as opposed to a less perceptive viewer?

There is one called “The Fortune Teller.”  The central figure is a man surrounded by four women. They’re dressed in really ornate costumes. What’s happening in the picture is that his pocket is being picked, and one of the women is cutting his watch off a gold chain. [But] he’s completely oblivious to the fact that a crime is being committed, because he’s engaged with the person who is trying to tell his fortune.

Some people won’t even see that crimes are happening. Others will talk about the incident. The most astute person in one of my groups said, “You know, for such a fastidiously dressed man, he’s got dirt under his fingernails.” I said, “Yes, our historians have noticed that, but why is that important to you?” And he said, “I work in customs and border protection. If someone is dressed to the nines, in fancy suits and fancy clothes, and their personal hygiene doesn’t match the way they’re dressed, it’s a signal to me that they could be smuggling drugs.” He quoted me; he said, “Amy, it’s about the big picture. Don’t forget the big picture. Look at all the details and see what makes sense.”

Q: Do you give police officers a story of some sort to go with the picture?

They’re not allowed to do that. This week I had a group of CSI investigators, the forensic experts in the New York City Police Department, and one of the women asked, “Do you want me to describe this as a crime scene, or do you want me to describe this as a work of art?” I said, “Describe it as you would describe a crime scene. The fact that it’s a work of art is just the vehicle. I want you to apply what you know professionally to your ability to talk about this.”

Part of the success of this program is that we take people out of their everyday context. We take them out of their familiar environment, take them out of the precincts, take them out of the hospitals, and put them in a museum where they don’t know where to look first.

When you ask them to use their professional skills in an unfamiliar setting, it’s a whole different thought process. Take them away from their BlackBerrys and their phones and they’re concentrating on the art, not as a thing of beauty, but as something to test their professional skills in a whole new venue. They really seem to respond to that.

The Department of the Army has retained me to work with officers before they’re deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. And I said, “Well, what do you want me to do for them?” And they said, “When they go overseas, they encounter the unexpected and the unknown. That’s what I want you to show them in the museum, and I want them to be able to communicate effectively. We can teach them cultural things, but effective communication in unfamiliar situations -- that’s what they’re going to find in a museum.”

Q: How do you teach communication skills?

It’s a very highly participatory session. I have a whole series of exercises where one partner has to look at an image and describe it to his partner; the partner who is not looking at the image has to sketch what they hear. It’s about prioritization of visual information, how you talk about it and how someone listens.

Then I have them write sentences about what they see. At the end of the exercise, I have them write just four words to describe what it is that they see. So I have a whole series of exercises that are designed to hone their communication skills.

Q: In the context of leadership, how would this be valuable to someone who is a manager, works in an office or runs an organization?

People in positions of executive leadership are usually more senior; they’ve been doing their jobs for a long time. Homicide detectives, when they’ve been on the job for 30 years, become inured to certain situations. They rely on their experience and their intuition rather than seeking out nuances and details that can make a difference in how they do their jobs. So I restructure the training to focus more on the interaction among individuals.

As someone in business once said to me, most deals don’t fall through because of financial aspects. They fall through because of a lack of communication during human interaction. Someone misreads communication, or misreads a tone or doesn’t listen.

I devised the exercises to focus on listening, body language and nonverbal communication.

Once, when I assigned the works of art, I gave these two young men -- they were first-year medical students at the time -- I could see from their body language they didn’t like the painting. I said to them, “If you don’t like it, that’s fine. Just be able to tell me why.” Well, it opened up a whole can of worms. They thought she was unattractive, she looked cross-eyed, her hat looked like a shower cap, her dress was ugly, and they went on and on.

I integrated into the curriculum, not just for medical students but for business leaders as well. What happens when you meet somebody with whom you’re involved in a transaction and you instinctively don’t like them? How does that affect the quality of your relationship? How does that affect the care that you can provide or the advisory position that you’re in? I’m not a psychologist in any way. All of this is done through looking at art and participating in exercises having to do with observation.

Q: In addition to skills in observation and communication, do you think there’s value in simply asking people to look in a new way?

Yes. I’m not teaching them a new skill, because if you’re in an executive position, you’ve been doing this for 15 or 20 years. If you are in a leadership position in a law enforcement agency, you’ve been doing this all along.

I am there to refresh their sense of inquiry. The title of the course is “The Art of Perception.” I want the benefits of this training to hit you when you’re back at your job: “Maybe it isn’t the way I think it is. Maybe it deserves a second look. Maybe I should ask a few more questions before I write that report.” That’s what I want them to do.

Q: What does it mean to refresh a sense of inquiry? That sounds broader than just seeing.

This goes back to my definition of perception. Perception is observation from the five senses. This program is not just about visual observation. It’s about hearing people, looking at people, your sense of smell and your sense of touch. For example, how much can you get from shaking someone’s hand? One of the first things I notice is the touch of someone’s hand and how firmly they shake my hand. When I shake their hand and they make direct eye contact, I say to myself, “This person is happy that I’m here.” I can tell the direction of the meeting. Those initial moments also affect my line of questioning about whatever the topic of the meeting is.

When medical students pull the curtain back in a hospital room and see the patient for the first time, do you notice this patient wearing their own pajamas or hospital-issue pajamas? That tells you so much about how they feel about being there. They want to be comfortable if they want to be in their own clothes; it also tells you they’re going to be there a long time. If you’re in for an overnight stay, you don’t always bring your own pajamas. If you notice flowers and cards on the table, this person has an extended family. You ask the patient, “Is there anyone else you’d like me to speak to?”

Perception is observation that is formed by the five senses, and inferences are drawn based on your perceptions.