Most of the communication that takes place between people is non-verbal in nature. What people say is often a poor indicator of what they want to convey, which makes people-reading a valuable life skill with almost endless benefits. Although we’re all blessed with different aptitudes, it’s possible to develop this skill in ourselves, as long as we can be honest about where we’re starting from. No matter which theory of model we use to help us analyze and interpret our observations, we need to consider context and how it factors in. One sign in isolation rarely leads to accurate judgments; you need to consider them in clusters. The culture people come from is another important factor that helps contextualize your analysis appropriately.
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Have you ever met someone who seemed to just have a natural gift for getting other people? They appear to be blessed with an instinctive understanding of how other people tick and why they behave as they do, to such an extent that they can often predict what they’ll say or feel.
These are the people who know how to talk so that others really hear them, or the people who can quickly detect when someone is lying or trying to manipulate them. Sometimes, such a person may perceive someone else’s emotions and understand their motivations to a degree that even exceeds that person’s insight into themselves.
It can seem like a superpower. How do they do it?
The truth is that this ability is not really anything mystical, but a skill like any other that can actually be learned and mastered. While some might call it emotional intelligence or simple social awareness, others may see it as more akin to what a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may do when they conduct an intake interview with a new patient. On the other hand, you may see this skill as something that a seasoned FBI agent, private detective, or police officer may develop with experience.
In this book, we’re going to be looking closely at all the ways we can develop these skills in ourselves, without needing a psychology degree or any experience as a trained CIA interrogator.
Reading and analyzing people is no doubt a valuable skill to have. We encounter and interact with other people constantly and need to cooperate with them if we hope to have successful, harmonious lives. When we know how to quickly and accurately analyze someone’s character, behavior, and unspoken intentions, we can communicate more effectively and, to put it bluntly, get what we want.
We can adjust the way we communicate to make sure we’re really reaching our intended audience; we can spot when we are being deceived or influenced. We can also more easily comprehend even those people who are very different from us, and who work from very different values. Whether you’re trying to learn a little more about a person you’ve just met by snooping in their social media history, or interviewing a new employee, or trying to understand whether the mechanic is telling the truth about your car, reading people well is a priceless skill to have.
It’s crazy when you really think about it: every person you ever meet is essentially a mystery to you. How can we really know what is going on inside their minds? What they’re thinking, feeling, planning? How can we ever really understand what their behavior means, why they are motivated as they are, and even how they see and understand us?
Another person’s world is like a black box to us. All we have to go on are things outside of that black box—the words they say, their facial expressions and body language, their actions, our past history with them, their physical appearance, the tone and quality of their voice, and so on.
Before we go much further in our book, it’s worth acknowledging this undeniable fact—human beings are complex, living, changing organisms whose inner experience is essentially closed off inside of them. Though some might make claims otherwise, nobody can really state with any certainty that they know who somebody is completely.
That said, we can certainly become better at reading the observable signs. “Theory of mind” is the term we use to describe the ability to think about other people’s cognitive and emotional realities. It’s the (perfectly human) desire to make a model about someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. And like any model, it’s a simplification of the depth and complexity of the real person in front of us. Like any model, it has limitations and doesn’t always perfectly explain reality.
Our goal in learning to fine-tune our capacity to analyze people is to make best guesses.
What we learn to do is gather as much high-quality data about a person as we can, and analyze it intelligently. If we can input these small pieces of data into a robust and accurate model of human nature (or more than one model) the output we can obtain is a deeper understanding of the person. In the same way as an engineer can look at a complicated machine and infer its operation and intended function, we can learn to look at living, breathing human beings and analyze them to better understand the what, why, and how of their behavior.
In the chapters that follow, we’ll be looking at many different models—these are not competing theories, but rather different ways of looking at a human being. When used all together, we gain a fresh understanding of the people around us.
What we do with this understanding is up to us. We could use it to foster a richer and more compassionate attitude to those we care about. We could take our knowledge and apply it in the workspace or anywhere we need to cooperate and collaborate with a wide variety of different individuals. We can use it to become better parents or better romantic partners. We can use it to improve our small talk, to spot liars or those with an agenda, or to reconcile effectively with people during conflicts.
The moment we encounter someone new for the very first time is the moment we most need to have well-honed powers of perception and analysis. Even the least emotionally and socially intelligent people can learn something about other people if they engage with them long enough. But what we’re focused on in this book is primarily those skills that can allow you to gather genuinely useful information about near-strangers, preferably after just a single conversation.
We’ll dig a little deeper into mastering the art of a snap decision that is actually accurate, how to make appraisals of people’s personalities and values from their speech, their behavior, and even their personal possessions, how to read body language, and even how to detect a lie as it’s happening.
Another caveat before we dive in: analyzing and reading people is about much, much more than simply having hunches or knee-jerk emotional reactions about them. Though instinct and gut feeling may play a role, we are focused here on methods and models that have sound theoretical evidence and seek to go beyond simple bias or prejudice. After all, we actually want our analyses to be accurate if they’re to be any use to us!
When we analyze others, we take a methodical, logical approach.
What are the origins or causes of what we see in front of us, i.e., what is the historical element?
What are the psychological, social, and physiological mechanisms that sustain the behavior you’re witnessing?
What is the outcome or effect of this phenomenon in front of you? In other words, how does what you’re seeing play out in the rest of the environment?
How is the behavior you’re witnessing triggered by particular events, the behavior of others, or even as a response to you yourself?
In the chapters that follow, we’ll look at smart ways to structure your rational, data-driven analysis of the complex and fascinating people who cross your path. You may start to appreciate how this kind of analysis is at the root of so many other competencies. For example, knowing how to read people may improve your capacity for compassion, boost your communication skills, improve your negotiation abilities, help you set better boundaries, and the unexpected side effect: help you understand yourself better.