Today’s Lesson: Our Ability to Observe and Report
Do you have memories of an elder entertaining you with personal tales? My dad, Harry Zubkoff, relished telling stories of his life that could keep us engaged and teach a lesson. He never ran out of these off-the-cuff tales in his public speeches, at social occasions – and especially around the family dinner table. Ask him a question or bring up a topic, and he’d give us a story, starting with, “Did I ever tell you about the time …?” I discovered the following story in Harry’s computer files, in an email he sent someone in 2010.
People have the power to look, but do not necessarily see. They have the ability to see, but do not necessarily observe. Here’s a situation that has been acted out time and time again in classes teaching observation methods.
Seeing is believing – or is it?
A redheaded man is standing at the podium on a stage delivering a lecture on observation to a class of seven adults, four men and three women. Suddenly a gunshot rings out offstage to the right. Two men rush on stage, one from the right where the shot was heard, and one from the left, both brandishing revolvers. Both are wearing ski masks. They meet at the center stage at the podium, and both face the speaker, turning their backs on the audience. Both point their revolvers at the speaker and both shoot him, two shots from the assailant on the right and three shots from the one on the left.
The speaker slumps to the floor, dead. The two killers run offstage, each exiting in the opposite direction from the side he entered. Through the entire episode, which takes less than 10 seconds, the audience remains frozen in their seats.
The witnesses are asked to write a complete account of exactly what they observed for the police, who arrived 20 minutes later, while the incident is still fresh in their minds. All of them saw the same things. Yet each one turned in a markedly different account.
How to explain it? The fact is no two people can witness anything in the same way. That is why all witness accounts of accidents are questionable. It is why police must have at least two witnesses who agree on what they saw – something very difficult to obtain. It is not my intention to teach you how to observe, but to tell you how I was taught to observe.
My first lesson was to describe the act I mentioned above. How many shots were fired? Describe the speaker. How many men came on stage and from where? What kind of guns were they carrying? Describe the men: tall, short, White, Black, etc. Describe the room: the number of entrances and exits, height of the stage off the floor level, number of steps to the stage? Describe all my fellow audience members in detail, etc.
Every one of the seven of us, who were already supposed to be partially trained observers, turned in different accounts of the same incident. All of us saw different things. None of us was completely accurate.
Make it a habit
So, we start all over with basics. Count the number of doors, entrances and exits. When you enter a theater they always tell you to look for the nearest exit. Well, look around for every exit and fix your mind where each one is. How many lights, bulbs in the chandelier, lamps? Note everything in a room, such as pictures on a wall and the number of windows, curtains, window shades, blinds, shutters, etc. Start by doing these things consciously, forcing yourself to observe everything. After doing so all the time, everyplace you go, you will find yourself doing it automatically. Then you graduate to the next of many levels.
At the next level, you start looking at the people you meet. You know how tall you are, so you have a basis for comparison. Estimate the height of each person you meet today. Then describe the body dimensions and features: hair color and style, complexion, skin color, shape – heavy, slim rotund, round, muscular, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-legged, short torso, shape of head, ears, eyes, eyebrows, etc.
If a friend of yours went missing, would you be able to give the cops a good description so they could look for him or her? What were they wearing when you saw them this morning or yesterday? You can practice by writing a description of a stranger you saw on the street today. Describe people till it becomes almost habitual. You will find yourself looking at people differently.
The next level
You are a passenger in the back seat of a car and you’re taken for a half hour drive. When you get back, you immediately sit down and write a report of where you were. Describe every street, every turn, how many traffic signals, buildings, houses, anything unusual, etc. Even people you saw walking.
As part of that exercise, a few extraordinary sights were planted along the route, such as a man wearing an overcoat on a warm summer day and a woman wearing a fur coat. Later you go through the same exercise at night and later still you go through it again, blindfolded, when you describe everything you heard or smelled or felt. How many stops for traffic lights, how fast you were going, etc.
And here’s a test after you have achieved a fairly high level of competence at the skill of observing. Drive down one street of a residential area, slowly. Keep your eyes open and try to remember everything you see. Afterward, park the car along the curb and write down everything you saw. How many houses on the street, cars parked in driveways, people walking, mowers mowing, house numbers, license plates, picture windows in houses, color of paint on doors, etc.
I’ll bet you think that’s not possible, but you’d be surprised how you can be trained to observe and remember.