Improve Your People-Reading Skills

In this space I have written quite a lot about the importance of knowing, in a given situation, what other people are thinking, feeling, and trying to achieve. I have even lightly touched on some of the ways you can do this.

But not enough, apparently. I’ve received many requests for more detail on this topic of “reading” other people. As you probably know from you own experience, “reading” people is partly an art form, as well as a skill or a science.

But there are some specific ways you can learn to see deeper into a person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

Here are a few of them:

Give Yourself Time

As I’ve indicated in previous posts, your ability to understand what others are thinking, feeling, and trying to accomplish in a particular situation gets more accurate when you give it more time.

Accordingly, don’t rush to judgment on any of this.

Instead, ask a lot of questions, pay attention to details, think about what you’re perceiving, and use both logic and intuition to help you determine what’s most likely going on.

The Sum is Greater Than the Parts

It’s rare than a single facial expression, choice of words, action, body language posture or movement, or any other clue tells the whole story about a person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. You’ll get a more accurate picture by piecing together a great many such clues gathered over a relatively long period of time.

Equally important, evaluate every clue you observe in light of its context. In other words, very few such clues always and absolutely convey a particular meaning. Nearly all the time, what you should take away from each of these clues, as well as the sum of all these clues, will depend heavily on the situations in which you observe them.

For example, in a formal setting body language will normally be a lot more restrained and different from what it would be in a more relaxed situation. How people behave in the presence of an authority figure – such as their boss – will be a lot different from how they behave when they are solely among friends.

You may occasionally observe a highly significant, “telling” moment that helps you understand a person in great depth. However, clusters of clues and behavioral patterns will nearly always give you more accurate readings.

Stay Flexible

Even after you’ve done all this and reached a conclusion about what another person is thinking, feeling, and trying to achieve, don’t get locked in. You could still be wrong. The other person could change. The situation could develop.

That’s why it’s important you retain as much flexibility as you can. This includes:

  • Replacing any “irreversible pronouncements” you might be tempted to make with tentative ideas and mild suggestions.
  • Including other people’s reactions to your ideas and suggestions as additional information on which to base more accurate readings.  
  • Continuing to observe and correlate new impressions with earlier ones.

Watch Yourself

You can greatly improve the accuracy of your people-reading by taking your own biases into consideration.

For example, if you find someone attractive, charming, or charismatic, you’re more likely to inaccurately attribute positive thoughts, feelings, and motivations to them. Similarly, if you have an aversion to someone, you’re more likely to err in the direction of negativity.

Your reading of another person may be distinctly swayed by their similarities to or differences from you, by their efforts to be nice to you – or by the lack of such efforts, by past experiences with other people of whom they remind you, and other irrelevant factors.

There are also expectations of male/female differences that may reduce the accuracy of your assessment. Here’s a two simple examples:

  • Certain behaviors in men are often considered signs of  “confidence”  and “leadership qualities,” while in women they are taken as signs of “bossiness” or unwanted “manipulation;”
  • Open emotionality and deep empathy is readily accepted from women, but often questioned when exhibited by men.

These and other biases are difficult to avoid, in large part because we tend not to recognize them in ourselves. That’s why it’s often helpful to check your readings of people with friends, family, or colleagues whose judgment you trust. Even if they don’t know the person you’re “reading,” they can often help you see your biases and reduce their impact on your assessment of the person in question.

Your ability to get along well with others in your work and your life will greatly improve as you strengthen your people-reading skills and abilities. By more accurately recognizing others’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations, you’ll find it easier both to help them and get them to help you.

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