People Watching

Goal: Observing and listening skills.

Setting: Almost any.

Background: People watching -- we all do it, and millions take it seriously in the sense of following the latest styles, what's in and what's out. But as a culture we also rather deprecate it -- as the phrase "people watching" suggests. The clothing and other styles that cycle through our culture are usually created and shaped to sell products, and are often considered beneath the attention of serious persons.

A better approach would focus on the importance of observing and listening -- which most of us don't bother to do well. The commercial styles are a rather small part of how people express who they are, and how they communicate and relate with others.

We suggest the book Reading People, by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Mark Mazzarella (Ballentine, readily available in paperback). The lead author is a successful jury consultant, and has helped lawyers select thousands of jurors (including the jury in the O.J. Simpson case). A jury consultant must be able to observe and evaluate a wide variety of people (since most adults could be selected for a jury pool) -- and then make decisions which need to be right because they can mean life or death for the attorney's client. This book sets out to teach some of these arts to the public.

There are no magic answers -- for example, no way to know for sure if someone is lying. (The book lists a number of indications that a person might be lying -- but each could also indicate something else, so ultimately it's a judgment call.)

Practice: We find the real value of this book in its discussions of hundreds of different things to look or listen for. Don't try to do them all; instead, pick one, or a few, that work for you, and use them throughout the day as your own personal training in observing and listening.

Perhaps our major take-home message from this book was how much information about people is entirely in the open, not at all hidden. People usually want to be known, want to be listened to. No need to spy.

The problem is that most of us don't bother to see what is in front of our faces, to listen to what people say, to ask them the right questions or otherwise help them bring out what they would like us to know. We can change these habits of ignorance to habits of observation. That's what this practice is for.

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