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More often than I’d like, I’m saddened at clients getting themselves into nasty situations because they’ve ignored obvious red flags in people. Understandable, as many are trauma survivors who have difficulty interpreting danger. The way to grow more astute is to develop the habit of tuning up your emotional antennae around everyone.
The skills of observing and assessing should not be confused with making judgments, though that is part of the process I’m encouraging. The goal is not to judge people as “bad,” but as not appropriate for you. This means watching people like a hawk, noticing everything they say and do, learning their histories, recognizing their patterns and, most importantly, paying attention to how you feel when you’re around them.
I suppose I’ve always been an observer, or why become a therapist, the ultimate observer and processor? I do know that my noticing skills have improved immensely as my clinical experience has grown. When your job is to study and monitor what’s going on inside someone sitting across from you day in and day out, your ability to attend to manifest and latent cues emanating from them increases exponentially.
So much so that this mechanism is on 24/7. I observe what parents in the supermarket say and do with their children and consider their parenting skills. When I meet people at parties, I pay attention to their interpersonal skills and how I feel when talking with them: uneasy, comfortable, bored, angry, uncertain, intrigued or confused.
Most of all, I don’t push away any of these feelings. If I’m uneasy, I know that someone is saying or doing something to make me feel that way—standing too close or talking too loud or too much. Maybe I’m confused because they’re bragging about themselves, and I can’t see much for them to boast about. Maybe they quickly change the subject when I ask a personal question. Maybe they never ask me about myself.
I also observe how people treat others. Are they kind and compassionate? If not, why would I think they’d treat me any differently? Are they good listeners or is everything they say about themselves? What is my first impression of them and why?
All of the above doesn’t mean I don’t give people second chances, but it does mean I don’t forget anything that happens and see everything as part of a pattern. I’m in firm agreement with Maya Angelou’s statement: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But to do that, you need to be paying attention to their cues 100% of the time and not wondering or worrying if they like you or not.
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