“To know what people really think, pay regard to what they do, rather than what they say.” – Rene Descartes
Ever since the first humans appeared on Earth, some 200,000 years ago, we have been dependent on one another. We have looked to each other for sustenance, love, connection and protection. Clearly, our very survival is determined by our ability to identify and nurture the right relationships.
Paradoxically, we’ve also had to be wary of getting into the wrong crowd. There is a dark side to human nature that can inflict harm and hurt. Liars, cheaters and manipulators have always been on the prowl in their quest to fulfill their selfish and power-hungry motives. Mentally unstable and psychologically wounded individuals can behave in reckless and unpredictable ways, which can create havoc in our lives.
Because of a lack of knowledge and experience, many of us are quick to make snap judgments about others based solely on superficial criteria. We strive to give them the benefit of the doubt when we should really be looking below the surface to gather enough information to figure out whether or not we can befriend and trust a certain individual or group.
Besides scoping out the “good guys” and the “bad guys”, the ability to read and understand people is an essential skill for succeeding in today’s world. It is a valuable tool that provides an insight into subtle social cues, which will enable us to react intelligently towards situations.
We’ll be able to gauge circumstances surrounding both casual conversations and important ones, such as job interviews, sales pitches or dates. We can develop solid business partnerships, have more loving relationships, and feel more in tune with our community by understanding others’ needs and drives.
Some people are born with stronger people instincts than others, with an internal radar, which can easily detect the deeper traits and intentions of others. We typically see these skills demonstrated by savvy professionals such as detectives, lawyers and FBI agents. These Sherlock Holmes-esque abilities can also be observed in modern-day TV sitcoms such as the Psych, Monk, or The Mentalist.
If you aren’t born with these sleuth-like sensibilities when it comes to decoding behavior, do not fret! There was a time when I too lacked people-reading finesse, but over the years, I was able to cultivate it through careful study, observation and practice. Like any other skill, it is something that you can master over time with focus, discipline and determination.
Over the years, I’ve realized that people are wonderfully complex beings with so many aspects to their personality. They act differently in various environments, groups and contexts. Their behavior and views may change over time as well. Yet if we look more closely, we’ll see that we are all like onions – even though we may have many varied layers to our persona, deep down inside, we all have a core essence.
To understand a person’s true essence requires a combination of keen observation, openness, and an ability to tap into our intuition. We have to slow down, step out of our natural self-focus and take a good look at the person standing in front of us. We have to be willing to accept that there’s so much more than what we see on the surface, and look out for both the obvious and the nuanced.
When we study people, we also have to remain as objective as possible and remove any emotion from the equation, since it can make us biased and skew our sense of fairness and balance. There is always a chance that we will project “our stuff” onto others, which is why we need to be grounded and engage in deep inner work before we can become experts at reading others.
I have created a basic template with simple guidelines on what to look for when interacting with other people. Remember that the more you practice and accumulate experience, the better you will get at it. We live in a socially connected world where we have to deal with people on a daily basis, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.
With that being said, here are six effective tips that will make you a master at reading people:
- Search for the meaning and motives behind their words: Too often, we get distracted with outward appearances. We must overcome this natural tendency to judge others by their façade by listening to the meaning behind the words that are being spoken. Look for substance and dive straight into the heart of the matter. For example, if your friend tells you that they would like to hang out with you more often, you can initially infer that what they’re really saying is that they’d like a deeper connection or that they might need a favor from you. You can only know their true motive by analyzing the matter closely.
- Look for patterns: It’s a known fact that we are what we repeatedly do. In other words, you can get a good idea of what a person is all about by looking at what they consistently do – their habits, mannerisms and general disposition. Past behavior and personal history can also offer some insights into their decision-making abilities. As Dr Phil repeatedly says in his shows: “The best predictor of future behavior is relevant past behavior.” Increase your powers of observation by slowing down and noticing details.
- Observe their body language: It’s been proven that our body communicates our true thoughts and feelings (especially on a subconscious level). In fact, research has shown that body language accounts for 55% of the overall message. There are plenty of great books by seasoned professionals who read people for a living. They list specific signs with interpretations of what it all means. I personally believe that we can learn a lot by simply looking into someone’s eyes, as the eyes truly are the window to a person’s soul.
- Consider their family and cultural background: Learning more about an individual family history and cultural background can explain a lot about why an individual is the way he/she is. For example, a woman who grew up in a broken family will most likely react differently emotionally in conflicts, compared to a woman who was raised in a stable, secure home environment. Culture also affects how a person conducts themselves. For instance, Eastern cultures like Chinese and Japanese people tend to be more introverted and not as assertive as their Western counterparts, and may therefore be mistaken for being passive or “boring”. You can get more tips on understanding other cultures in this blog post.
- Listen to your gut: Sometimes, you simply need to get out of your analytical mind and tap into your intuitive intelligence. How many times have you had “feelings” about a certain individual? You probably had no idea why you felt the way you did but it felt strong and almost convincing. Even if there is no rational explanation, it may be worth listening to, as this type of wisdom is coming from a deeper and more instinctive part of you that is programmed to catch the most subtle vibes in your surroundings.
Understanding others is ultimately an attempt to form authentic connections with them through all the commonalities that we share in this human experience. This can only take place when we’re able to tap into our humanity and compassion. It’s from this empathetic place that we can forge relationships and friendships that are fulfilling, loving and enduring.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to reading people? What steps can you take to overcome them?
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