I Miss People Watching
My mom used to take me to the mall and park me on a bench with a pretzel from Auntie Annie's. From that perch, we would watch families and solo shoppers pass. My mom would point out particular people and ask me what they were thinking. It was a game we played. We guess what they were thinking based on their facial expression, body language or words and tone if we could hear them. We made up stories for how they reached the emotional (or unemotional) state they were in. My mother always steered the stories toward common ground; a reason for anger or sadness that tapped into empathy.
It was a game but not a game. As a child, I struggled to understand my own emotions and those of others. I was not born able to read body language. Most people are. Instead, I was stumped by others' feelings and responded inappropriately or unexpectedly. The thing is, I could feel their emotions, but without context, all that did was overwhelm me. And since I had yet to learn self-moderation, my reactions tended to be really big. In Autism, we call these overblown responses to seemingly simple stimuli "meltdowns."
The mall was not the only place we practiced reading body language. We examined people from the car, at school, in the grocery store, at restaurants, and sometimes my mom even asked people if they would share what they were feeling and why because "My daughter noticed you seem to be struggling right now . . ." and this opened the window for me to practice listening with compassion.
Listening with compassion requires your full, bodily presence if you are physically near the person who is talking. It requires you to not make assumptions ("She probably wasn't paying attention and doesn't like the outcome.") and, instead, remain curious ("I wonder if she didn't like the outcome because it was unexpected rather than bad.").
The end result of our people watching practice is that I have unusual (I am told) intuitive understanding of emotional settings and situations. I can predict outcome, pinpoint context, and all of this has led me to work with survivors of violence. Ultimately, making up stories about people with my mom built my skill set for coaching people to release trauma.
What would happen if you spent 10 minutes a day asking why instead of assuming answers? What if we all did this? I'm talking about getting curious instead of reactive, of choosing to set reaction aside and hear a person with our whole selves with the goal of not just understanding them, but relating or them or simply holding space so they can feel heard. I think this would change the world.
I challenge you to try this. People watch and write about what you saw, what your initial response was, what an alternate context for what you saw might be, and what this process was like for you.
image from unsplash
This is a repost from my archives.