Learning to read people is one of the most important skills you can have in your interpersonal life. Whether you’re focusing on professional success, friendship, romance, marriage, career or parenting, understanding How to Read People will give you the ability to make sound decisions and develop incredible insight into people’s lives. With practice, your ability to understand the core motivations, desires, and thoughts of others can become so accurate as to border on an invasion of privacy.
In this 3-part series I will be covering the following:
1. Preparing Yourself to Read People: this is the subject of this first post. I describe how to mentally prepare yourself to become an effective people reader.
2. Beyond Words – what people are really saying: The next post contains the techniques and mindset needed to develop the art of reading people.
3. How to Tell if Someone is Lying to You: In the final post I’ll explain the techniques professional interrogators and body-language experts use to catch someone in a lie.
Taken from skills I’ve learned over the years from animal tracking (yes animal tracking has a lot to do with reading people), techniques and ideas taught to me by a former interrogator for the CIA, as well as professional people readers like Jo-Ellan Demitrius – I will give you a concise step-by-step approach to accurately reading people.
Preparing Yourself to Read People
I’m sorry to burst your bubble here, but there is no quick fix in learning to read people. I know you want to get right into learning the latest body-language interpretation techniques and principles, but as with most things, you need to first build a proper foundation. And that is what this post is about.
The first step in learning how to read people is gaining a general understanding of the makeup of others and surprisingly…ourselves. Without understanding the walls people build up around themselves, as well as the barriers that we put in our own way, we will never be able to successfully read people.
-People are Like Onions-
When it comes to revealing ourselves to others, people are very much like a four-layered onion.
The outermost layer is that part of our personality that we reveal to strangers – the most superficial aspects of who we really are. An example of this can be seen when we talk with a stranger sitting next to us on a bus. Trivial topics like the weather, current events, sights and sounds around us are typical things we feel willing to talk about.
Around our friends and some acquaintances we feel comfortable enough to peel back that outermost layer to reveal the next one. For example, if you were chatting with a coworker this time, you would probably feel more comfortable revealing more about yourself. Your attitudes towards work, certain emotions and your general thoughts about life are some of the things that might come up in conversation.
The third layer is reserved for those with whom we have an intimate relationship with, such as a close friend or spouse. In many cases, intimate relationships take time to develop, and with that time, trust is earned. Imagine now sitting on that same bus next to your spouse or significant other. The depth of what you reveal this time is much greater than any previous layer. Your goals, personal problems, and fears and so on, all fall within this layer.
The fourth and innermost layer contains that part of ourselves that we don’t share with anyone. It contains our deepest and sometimes darkest thoughts and secrets that we would rather not acknowledge. The fact that we are trying to come to terms with many of these things ourselves makes us not comfortable sharing them with others.
The extent to which you can ‘read’ someone is determined by how many of their layers you’re able to get them to reveal. And here’s a little secret: a person will reveal their layers in direct proportion to you revealing yours. This is the onion theory in a nutshell.
-Removing our own Barriers-
The second part of preparing ourselves to read people involves removing the barriers that keep us from accurate ‘people-reading’. The two barriers are our prejudices and our projections.
When people think of prejudice, mostly the racial kind comes to mind. Although a part of it, this is not entirely what I’m talking about here. Anytime you make an opinion, whether it is positive or negative, without knowledge or examination of the facts, you are being prejudiced.
Whenever you come up with some preconceived notion based on things such as race, color, political alignment, or even the way people dress, it taints your ability to accurately read others. Our prejudices can be based on our fears, feeling threatened, upbringing or a myriad of other things.
Closely related to prejudice is projection. In the late 50′s Leon Festinger coined a phrase called ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ which can basically be described as the human tendency to close ones eyes and minds to things that are uncomfortable or disturbing. We tend to ‘project’ our view onto a situation because it is easier to deal with.
For example, a parent noticing a child’s slipping grades, lack of appetite, and tendency to come home late, might try to shrug it off as puberty or new-found love when it’s clear to everyone else that it may be a drug problem – something that the parent is unwilling to accept.
Learning how to read people might also help you confirm if a loved one is a victim of teen drug addiction or not.
When we are emotionally committed to someone or something it can blind us from the truth of a situation, leading us to an incorrect reading of someone.
-Waiting Patiently with an Empty Cup-
The key to effectively reading people is by being completely objective – having an empty cup so to speak. Overcoming our biases, prejudices and projections allows us to be completely objective.
The last important step is learning to be patient. Don’t fill your cup up so fast that you rush in drawing your conclusions. I’ve seen this with my experiences in animal tracking. In the beginning I was in such a hurry to interpret the trail and the animal I was following that I’d fail to see the big picture. One time I remember my friend laughing at me while pointing out that what I thought were perfect sets of deer tracks, ended up only being the heel of a sneaker. If I took my time to let the whole picture develop and not come to a conclusion so quickly, it would have saved me the disappointment and embarrassment I felt.
It’s the same thing in learning to read people. As you learn the techniques to interpret peoples’ body language and environment (I will discuss this in the next posts), resist the urge to jump to conclusions. If you think for example that they are defensive because they have their arms folded – well maybe they’re sitting under an a/c vent and they’re simply cold. Are they lying because they’re fidgeting and seem nervous? Well, possibly they need to go to the bathroom real bad. In other words, hold off until later to make your final decision.
In the next post, I’ll be covering the second part in this series: “Beyond Words – what people are really saying”.