In this post, the second in a 3-part series, I reveal the techniques and mindset that you will need to effectively read people. I tried to be as succinct as possible without losing any important details, but because of its length feel free to bookmark this page and read it in sections.

How to Read People – Series

1. Preparing to Read People
2. Beyond the Words
3. Detecting Lies

Reading people is as much a science as it is an art.

The science deals with an understanding of the mechanics and principles involved in people reading; For example, you study all the cold, hard facts about what a specific mannerism could mean, what a certain tone of voice might suggest, or how the context of a persons environment may influence their behavior. However, knowledge of the basic principles is only half of the equation.

Once the principles are understood, open up the right brain – that part of yourself that does not think in terms of linear thought, words, or mathematics, but instead with patterns, colors and abstracts. This is the art.

Those who are successful at combining the two become amazing people readers.

There is no replacement for practice. You could read all the books out there on body language, vocal interpretation, lie detection, etc. and still not be a great reader of people. I can give you the tools, but you must come up with the passion to put them to work. I am confident though, that as you practice these techniques and adopt the mindset, that the passion will naturally develop and many of these things will become instinctual. So let’s begin!

The 4 Principles of Reading People

Establish the Baseline
Recognize Patterns
Challenge and Refine Your Assumptions
Make a Decision

All areas of people reading rely on your ability to put these principles into practice. You begin by establishing a general baseline. From that baseline you look for specific patterns and consistencies whereupon you make your assumptions. Then comes the cyclical aspect of constantly challenging and refining those assumptions by observing new patterns and using the art of questioning. Then, backed by experience and intuition, you make a decision.

Establish the Baseline

Establishing the baseline is the first step. When you’re starting to read someone, begin by studying their behavior. Ask yourself if how they are acting at this moment reflects their typical way of being. If a person is in a comfortable, familiar environment and surrounded by those who know them intimately, it’s a safe bet that they are in a baseline state. This will become your standard from which you will make your assumptions.

If you’re in a situation where it doesn’t offer this opportunity, then you need to wait it out. Time will help you notice what the person’s average behavior is.

This is best practiced with someone that you know. Pick someone, like a coworker at your office. For the next week study them. I carry what I call an ‘observation journal’ with me. Try to figure out what their baseline is. Any deviation from the norm is something you should record and be aware of. Because we all have our good and bad days, with time you’ll begin to see how they normally act.

Recognize Patterns

Because our minds can only consciously process a limited amount of data at one time (some say only about 5-9 bits), it becomes very selective in what it brings to our attention. I had a friend growing up that loved playing the ‘Punch-Buggy’ game whenever we went for a drive. He always saw the little VW Bugs and hit me long before I could. Somehow he had trained his mind to bring Volkswagen Beetles immediately to the forefront of his consciousness – he’d see them everywhere. Reading people is no different. With all the distractions coming in, professional people readers filter out the inessential and bring to the forefront the indispensable.

Well, what should I be looking for then, you may ask? Patterns. Trends. A theme. As you begin analyzing people, look for ‘clusters’ – groups of related signals – that coincide with a specific behavior or state of mind. Single traits by themselves, rarely tell the whole story of what a person is all about. It’s not until you broaden your view to include the whole picture, will you begin to correctly analyze someone. I cannot stress this enough. If success with this is your goal, then it is so important that you learn to see in patterns. When you discover these consistencies, it is a safe bet that you are onto something that will reveal the person to you.

Patterns begin with the first impression and continue onward. As you combine the first impression with specific tells, behavior, vocal attributes, and their environment, you are well on your way to reading them correctly.

– Beyond the Blink: reading the first impression –

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fantastic book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In it he observed our ability to make snap judgments about a person in the blink of an eye.

Snap judgments are, first of all, enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience…they are also unconscious. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of hidden fists out there, lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.

However Malcolm explains that in many cases, these ‘thin-slices’ of experience from which we draw our conclusions are many times incorrect. What I’m asking for you to do is to control the ‘blink’ response and retrain your brain, consciously at first, to look for meaning behind the impression. Through experience, this blink response will become very accurate.

When you begin sizing them up, don’t overlook anything. This is where you notice the small details about the person: their hair, their walk, their fingernails, their body language, the clothes they wear. Always ask yourself, “what is this telling me?”.


For example, hair can tell a lot about a person. In women, short stylish hair could denote someone who is creative, artistic, or expressive. Because maintaining perfectly styled hair is expensive, it may signify wealth. If that isn’t the case, then their willingness to spend a lot of their money to maintain their coif might show vanity, or a need for acceptance, even insecurity.

Less styled short hair on the other hand could mean practicality.

For men, professionally styled hair usually goes hand in hand with the desire to show status and power. If combined with expensive clothing and accessories, this is usually a sure bet. Most men do not have the time or desire to regularly have their hair styled at a professional salon. Because it deviates from the norm, this is a good example of something to look out for.

Every detail of a person’s appearance can offer further clues into their interests, beliefs, emotions and values. Since there are too many details to list here, I’ll share with you some of the things you should be looking out for, as well as questions you should ask.

As I have explained earlier, any trait that stands out from the baseline, needs to be noted. Note that a deviation from the baseline is not only things that stand out on the individual, but how that person stands out as a whole compared to what the norm is around them. With extremes in appearance you might ask yourself: are they seeking attention? trying to imitate someone they look up to? being rebellious? are they self-centered and are insensitive to others? have they just not been taught how to dress and act in an appropriate way? or do they just lack common sense?

Be aware of things like physical characteristics, jewelery, makeup, clothing, accessories, hygiene, and piercings/tattoos etc. Again ask yourself, “what is this telling me?”.

Body Language

Since the publication of Julius Fast’s Body Language in 1970, hordes of people began to see crossed legs, folded arms, facial tics – specific behavioral traits – in a whole new light. Even in our time, a generation later, many people are still conscious about crossing their arms in a meeting so as not to appear ‘closed’.

Body language, like appearance, can only be correctly analyzed when viewed against the first two principles of reading people: finding the baseline and recognizing patterns. Thinking that you’ll be able to ‘make’ someone, off of one or two bodily quirks, is not realistic. You want to look for consistency. Body language is only effective as you begin to observe more of the person’s character, and to know their character you must recognize patterns, not just in their body language, but in everything that has to do with them.

- Bundling the Behaviors: noticing the patterns of action -

A good determinate of a person’s core personality is how they act when they don’t have to ‘act’. Take the workplace for example. Is he polite and charming to his subordinates when the boss is around, only to show his true colors when she leaves? Seeing how a person behaves in different situations will help you to further understand what they are all about.

Study their interaction with different people, such as with children, co-workers, normal day-to-day people, their family and friends. This will tell you a lot about them.

The saying, “You can tell how a man will treat you by the way he treats his mother”, although not always the case, does have a measure of truth to it. Many of us have been on dates where they are wonderfully polite and charming with you, only underhandedly being rude to or badmouthing the people serving you. Watch for veiled acts of inconsistency. Their charming, delightful personality may not be so charming and delightful as the novelty of the relationship wears off.

People behave a certain way based on their wants, needs, or values. We tend to project these values and wants on others because it is a source of validation. Athletes value those with strength and stamina. Artists value the creativity in others. If your way of showing love is buying others gifts, then I would bet when people buy you gifts you feel loved too. What someone consistently does for others or seeks out in them can be a big help in determining what they desire or value.

Realize that sometimes, because of fear, anger, or duress a person will act out of character. Lest I keep repeating myself, remember the principles of baseline and recognizing patterns. Are you sensing a pattern yet?

- Beyond the Words: what people are really saying -

Vocal attributes play an important role in determining what someone is really saying. These traits in many cases contain hidden messages that require you to pay attention.

Someone with a loud voice may indicate a need to control their environment. Like a drill seargent, they use their voice to intimidate and dominate. Sometimes it can be for reasons of trying to compensate for something they think they’re lacking. I know this really short guy at work who speaks louder and deeper than I’ve seen with guys almost twice his size. This combined with his need to talk over you shows his insecurities. Realize that a loud voice could also mean a loss of hearing or that they’re inebriated. Remember to take everything into consideration.

A soft voice also could have different meanings. Don’t immediately dismiss the person as someone who lacks confidence. It may mean they’re tired or depressed. It may show that they have a calm-assurance about them. It may also show their arrogance in the sense that they feel you need to listen more if you want to know what they’re saying.

Think about all the possible reasons for rapid or slow speech, mumbling, different intonations and emphasis, an unemotional, pretentious or whining tone of voice. Each of these may reveal something deeper than what was first expected.

Look for the matching of one’s vocal attributes, with their body language and words.

Beyond vocal attributes, understanding verbal gymnastics is the other half of what people are communicating in their speech patterns. For example, always question why someone is leading you towards or away from a topic of conversation. Are they showing conceit by trying to find an opportunity to brag? Are they showing compassion through their leading away from gossiping about someone?

The way someone answers can also be used to control or direct a conversation. Try to interpret why they could be rambling, changing the subject, giving a long drawn-out or a short answer, or not simply not responding at all.

As always, question deviations from the norm. Someone who rarely uses profanity might, with specific people, use it frequently. This could indicate they’re seeking acceptance, or trying to present themselves as someone they’re not.

- Interpreting their Environment -

One of the best sources of people reading is the person’s environment. So many clues can be discovered here, such as hints about their job, education, religion, culture, hobbies, marital and family status, political alignment, friends, and wealth. You’d be surprised at what someone can learn about you, just from them reading your environment, that it can be quite embarrassing.

Because most of our time is spent at home or at work, these areas provide an accurate source of reading into peoples lives.
If you can get exposed to both of these areas, and compare the two, very precise conclusions can be made about them. For example, noticing a discrepancy between their work and home environment, shows that their public image is quite different from their private one.

The Workplace

Reading the workplace environment starts with the geographical location of someone’s home in relation to their work. A father who moves his family downtown to be close to work could indicate that he’s a workaholic, is self-centered, or ambitious. However the close proximity might also show that the parents are interested in providing their children easy exposure to cultural opportunities or that the shorter commute means more time with his family. It is through studying both the home and workplace that a more telling story will develop.

Now begin to study the job itself. Why do you think they’ve chosen it? What does it tell about the person? Their education or drive? The fact that they’re a medical doctor may show a desire to help others, indicating someone who’s compassionate. However, they might only be interested in the status of such a job. I even know someone who became a doctor because of pressure from their father, this tells a whole other story.

The items at the workplace that people surround themselves with are also very telling. In many ways, these items are a microcosm of the person’s life.To give you an idea, consider some of these items:

  • Plants Do they keep fresh flowers or plants? This indicates a person who loves nature or is sensitive to beauty. It may also show that they’re health conscious.
  • Calendars These are good indicators of hobbies, interests, or sense of humor.
  • Books and Reading Material Having novels or magazines not connected to the job do show personal interests, but beyond that, it also can show that their mind is not on the job. Leaving them lying on the desk can where the boss will surely notice, may show a lack of judgment.
  • Desktop Items What a person keeps in their immediate view also provides answers. Having multiple pictures of his children in different stages of their lives shows his love for family. However, if there’s not one of his wife, it may indicate a divorce, a strained relationship, or that he’s are embarrassed about her looks.

The Home

Because the home is where the heart is, a person’s living area reveals volumes about them. As with the workplace, consider the location, the neighborhood, and the items within and without. What are they telling you? Some important items to consider are books and reading material, items on the refrigerator, collections, photos, artwork, children’s toys. Take note of the layout and decorations of the home.

Someone who wears very expensive clothes, but has a very humble home, may reveal a desire to appear differently to others. Look for things where a person’s home is in contrast to their public persona. The bigger the gap the greater the desire to appear a certain way.

The Automobile

Like the home and workplace, a persons car will reveal a lot about them. But as always, take it in comparison to everything else. Like clothes, having an expensive well-maintained automobile may at first indicate wealth, but taken in context with a run-down home may again show a desire to maintain a certain public image.

A messy, disorganized car usually indicates a messy, disorganized person. I also tend to notice the little sticker that oil-change shops put on the upper left corner of the windshield. Seeing the actual car’s mileage being much greater than the mileage indicated by the sticker may show a lack of awareness, complacency, or laziness.

The Social Environment

Where do they spend their free time and who with? Where a person tends to regularly ‘hang out’ as well as the company one keeps will tell you more details of their personality and interests.

The Socioeconomic Environment

A persons socioeconomic environment and background is a major key to determining one’s behavior. Remember to be aware of your prejudice. As I spoke of in the last post, prejudice may taint your ability to read someone successfully. As with everything else, the socioeconomic environment needs to be considered within the context of everything else.

Delving Deeper through the Art of Questioning

Through the process of recognizing patterns and refining your assumptions, there comes a time where you need to delve deeper. If you are setting up a date with someone, at a job interview, or just trying to get to know the person better, learning the art of questioning is very handy.

The types of questions that should be asked are those which help confirm or contradict the assumptions that you’ve made throughout this process. Don’t make it sound like an interrogation (that will be covered in the next post – How to Detect Lies ;) ). Do however, make it a natural part of the conversation. Remember to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

Making your Decision

After all the cards are laid on the table, and you have established the baseline, recognized patterns, and challenged and refined your assumptions through questioning, then and only then should you make a final decision. It’s the combination of many details pointing in the same direction that will remind you that you’re on track. Being that reading people is a science and an art, use the facts that have presented themselves and couple it with your intuition. If you do this, you will rarely be wrong about someone.

If you’ve come this far, good job at staying with me! Remember that I’ve just provided you with the tools, you need to come up with the passion. Practice will create this passion.

In the next and final post on How to Read People, I will teach you how to detect lies.

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