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Becoming a Great Observer

Observation is key to survival, yet few of us do it well.

Recently I saw the National Geographic series, "Brain Games." If you get a chance, take a look; what an eye-opener. The show convincingly demonstrated that humans are terrible observers as we are easily distracted and for the most part, are unwilling to critically assess the world around us.

It hasn't always been this way. For tens of thousands of years, our predecessors lived in very small groups, and for them, it was critical to carefully observe others and the world around them. Observation was crucial for survival and fortunately, no one was there to say, "It's not polite to stare." If they had followed that admonition, we probably would have died out as a species.

For most of history, we humans have been very good observers because we had to. We utilized all of our senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight to detect and discern. The sudden vocalization of animals or the scampering of birds alerted the knowing that someone was approaching. Even the sweat of a sojourner let our ancestors know who was in the area and what they had eaten. At a distance, by examining posture, gait, arm swing, clothing, and accouterments (weapons, water vessels, etc.) our ancestors could discern friend from foe.

As generations evolved and eventually moved to cities, close proximity changed how we viewed and assessed each other. Because everyone was so close, we had less time to observe. Close quarters and circumstances dictated we interact first rather than later. This was the opposite of what we had done for thousands of years which was to assess first at a distance and then interact. This close proximity also made us more sensitive to being observed, which is why we are made uncomfortable when others stare at us.

The question I often ask is, "Have we become observationally lazy?" Have we allowed ourselves to become careless when it comes to our own safety and that of our loved ones? This is not a pointless question. I ask because, like you, I see people distracted (applying makeup, making phone calls, texting) while driving and getting into traffic accidents. Or someone knocks at the front door and we open it without first seeing who it is and asking what they want. Perhaps, in an attempt to be nice and polite, we have abrogated our responsibility to ourselves, and each other, to be good observers.

It is bad enough when I ask in class, where is the nearest fire exit and only one hand goes up. Or worse, as I saw last week, a young student leaves the supermarket pushing a cart, talking on her mobile phone, without looking around. As she reached her car and opened the door she found herself trapped by someone begging for money at such a close distance that fear and surprise dominated her face. Fortunately, the man merely wanted a handout; but it could have been a sexual predator or a robber. Had she been observing her environment she could have better anticipated this event.

Almost twenty years ago, Gavin de Becker wrote The Gift of Fear, in an effort to warn and educate us about being more observant and aware. He encouraged us to look around and to listen to that that "inner voice," which is really our limbic brain telling us to be careful that something is wrong.

It is a shame that twenty years on few people know de Becker's work. I say that because we really need to improve our ability to observe and especially our situational awareness. We know this by how many times someone has been victimized or has been taken advantage of and later we hear, "You know I had a feeling, in the beginning, that something wasn't right." Failure to observe, if we are honest, leads to avoidable circumstances as well as accidents but it can also help us to avoid being victimized.

I talked last year with a mother whose son was sexually abused by a camp counselor. She related to me how, "from the very beginning," she had a "sense" not to trust that counselor. I have no doubt that the Penn State, Sandusky case will also evince such comments.

Likewise, I am sure many an investor with Bernie Madoff (or any other swindler for that matter) has had that same feeling of revulsion after realizing that they too had "hints," "feelings," or "an intuition," that something was not quite right. This is important to remember because how we feel about something often completes the picture so that we can fully understand it.

It is never too late to start observing, but what do we observe for? First, let's get some things clear about proper observation. Observation is not about being judgmental, it is not about good or bad, it is about seeing the world around you, having situational awareness, and interpreting what it is that others are communicating both verbally and nonverbally. To observe is to see but also to understand and that requires listening to how you feel, which was basically de Becker's admonition in Gift of Fear.

Good observation skills give us the opportunity to test and validate what others think, feel, or intend for us. Are they kind, unselfish, and empathetic? Or are they selfish, cruel, indifferent, and apathetic? Because if they are and we discover it early enough, we have spared ourselves, some might even say saved ourselves. But if we don't, we pay the heavy price of a burdensome relationship with someone that does not have us in his or her best interest. Perhaps this is why when we are young we have so many "friends" and as we get older we have fewer of them, but they are better. We have gotten rid of the ones that drained us or caused us pain. If only we had been more observant and judicious when we were young and paid attention to how we felt.

As I often say, we have no social responsibility to be a victim. If someone acts or even hints at anti-social tendencies it is best to avoid them and this can only be determined through critical observation. And that means we are always testing and validating. This is important because when we deal with individuals who have anti-social tendencies, we will pay the price either through their negativity, lack of genuine empathy, or through their indifference, callousness, or criminality.

Being observant does not mean being obnoxious or intrusive. In fact, a good observer knows that intrusive observations affect what is observed; so it needs to be done with subtlety as well as purpose.

What finally do we assess for? Two things primarily: danger and comfort. Just that? No, but let's start with that. Simply ask yourself at all times, "How does this situation or this individual make me feel?" For example, you are walking to your car at night and you see someone out of the corner of your eye walking briskly and you sense that you will both intersect. Your limbic brain senses this for you and lets you know something is not right - but you have to heed that inner voice. That discomfort is your brain saying "warning - possible danger" so you become more alert, you look for a well-lit area, and you wisely change your pace, or return to the safety of the store.

Assessing for comfort can really open your eyes. When you are with someone new ask yourself, "Does this person make me feel comfortable at all times?" If he or she doesn't, then the question is "Why?" We must never ignore clues that say something is wrong, no matter how badly we want a friendship to work. Your subconscious is always working to protect you, it is there for a reason, but you have to be prepared to observe and recognize what you sense.

Conclusion: Observation is no less important now than it was ten thousand years ago. The only difference is now we have to do it more quickly and more efficiently because we may run into fifty strangers in a day whereas our ancestors saw but a few. We can improve this skill, and we can even teach it to our children, but like everything else, it takes effort (cont.).

Copyright © 2012 Joe Navarro


de Becker, Gavin. 1997. The Gift of Fear. New York: Dell Publishing.

Navarro, Joe. 2010. Body Language Essentials. Amazon Kindle.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

Navarro, Joe and John R. Schafer. 2003. Universal principles of criminal behavior: a tool for analyzing criminal intent. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (January): 22-24

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