Most humans are fairly emotional, whether they know it or not. They act on their emotions most of the time. You may think that they are reacting to you or to a situation but often, they’re acting out of a deeper set of feelings that even they can’t understand.
This may seem like a rudimentary concept but often technically trained people like engineers and scientists often find interacting with others so confounding. If you’re having trouble “getting” people, it may be that you don’t truly understand the subtext of their emotions. Here are a few observation exercises that may help you to begin to better understand folks.:
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are four basic emotions. They are:
When we look at our own emotions, we can probably break them down into one of these. Some would say “hurt” is an emotion but hurt is really sadness that we feel is caused by rejection. (By the way, frustration is not an emotion.) Anger is. But often anger is a way to protect ourselves from sadness.
Here are some exercises that you can do on your own that will help you better identify the emotional behavior of others and of yourself.
Self Observation – Go through a day. Make note of your own emotions during the day. (Boredom is also not an emotion.) When you’re feeling something, anything, make note of it and try to fit it into one of the four emotion categories.
Observing Others’ Emotions – Go through a day, when you see others displaying emotions, from a child crying (sadness) to a road rage (anger), make a mental note or call it in to your voicemail. See how many emotions you can observe in a day. Also, consider the context of the emotion. What caused it?
Environmental Observation – Go to Starbucks or any place you’re comfortable where you can observe others without being described as a stalker or a weirdo. Take a pad and pen or a laptop with you. Watch people. And describe their physical characteristics and behaviors. How do they sit? Do they slouch or sit upright. Are their arms crossed or legs crossed? If they’re on the phone, are they animated or quiet and controlled? How do people walk—trudging or tiptoeing, swaggering or skipping
Character Observation – Same Starbucks, different day. Choose an interesting looking person and watch them. Describe their physical appearance, mannerisms, how they speak, purse lips, ticks, facial expressions, hand gestures. What kinds of emotions are they displaying. This time, you can go beyond the basic four. If they’re on the phone and you can discreetly hear some or all of what they’re saying, try to imagine who it is they’re talking to, what is the relationship to that person? Are they sisters, family, friends, old friends, new friends? How do you think they really feel about the person with whom they’re speaking. If you find two people in a conversation, do the same thing. You hear their conversation but what do they really think about each other? Are they married or single? What is their profession, how would you describe them? Smart, stupid, happy, goofy, depressed, giggly?
Character Description — Write a detailed character description of this person as you would for a movie script or a novel (example here). Fill in all the details you don’t know with whatever pops into your head.
The Story Game – When you’re out, running errands, waiting in line at the bank, put away your Ipod, your Iphone, your Blackberry and watch people. Try to imagine what their “story” might be. The details you don’t know, make them up. Invent a story about the people you see from the little that you can observe about them.