Listening to what people are NOT saying
is just as important as what they are.
Listening is as much a science as it is an art.
The science of listening deals with an understanding of the mechanics and principles involved in people reading; ie, you study facts about what a specific mannerism could mean; what a certain tone of voice might suggest; or how the context of a person’s environment may influence their behavior. However, knowledge of the basic principles is only half of the equation.
Once the principles are understood: open up your 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, you will be ahead of the game. 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 and vocal interpretation and still not be a great reader of people. At the end of the day, you must come up with the passion to put these principles to work.
The primary principles of reading people are…
- Determine and focus on a baseline
- Identify patterns of mannerisms and speech rhythms
- Adjust your assumptions, as needed
- Come to a conclusion
All of these techniques rely on the need for these principles to be a part of your daily interaction with people. First, 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 critical point of refining those assumptions by observing new patterns and using the art of questioning. Finally, backed by experience and intuition, you make a decision, wherein establishing the baseline.
Establishing the baseline is the first step. When you’re starting to scrutinize someone, begin by studying his or her 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.
Identify patterns of mannerisms and speech rhythms
Because our minds can only consciously process a limited amount of data at one time, it becomes very selective in what it brings to our attention. With all the distractions emerging, professional people readers filter out the inessential and bring to the forefront the indispensable. The question you then ask yourself becomes: “What do I look for?” The answer is simple: patterns, common themes and trends.
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. 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 will begin to identify the insight needed to unearth what you need.
Beyond the Blink: Reading the first impression
Malcolm Gladwell wrote many phenomenal books. There is one that stands out amongst the others, namely, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In the book, the author 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 firsts 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 about an individual.
However, the book explains that in many cases, “thin-slices” of experience from which we draw our conclusions are many times incorrect. Try 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.
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 hairstyle 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. Be aware of things like physical characteristics, jewelry, makeup, clothing, accessories, hygiene, and piercings/tattoos, etc. Again, ask yourself, “What is this telling me about this person?”
From the onslaught of books written on body language, hordes of people began to see crossed legs, folded arms, facial tics in a whole new light. 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 figure someone, off of one or two bodily quirks, is not entirely realistic. You want to look for consistency. Body language is only effective as you begin to observe more of the person’s character. To know their character, you must recognize patterns, not just in their body language, but in everything that has to do with them.
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. What someone consistently does for others or seeks out in them can be a big assist 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 more carefully. Someone with a loud voice may indicate a need to control his or her environment. Like a Drill Sergeant, they use their loud voice to intimidate and dominate others. Sometimes it can be for reasons of trying to compensate for something they think they’re lacking. 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 connotations. 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 themselves. A soft voice 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. What are they hiding?
The way someone answers can also be used to control or direct a conversation. Try to interpret why they could be rambling on, changing the subject, giving a long, drawn-out or a quick response, or simply not responding at all.
Interpreting their environment
One of the best sources of people reading is the person’s environment. So many clues about a person 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.
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 paramount.
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. Do, however, make it a natural part of the conversation. Remember to “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
Making your Decision
At the end of the day, once you have determined a focus on the baseline, identified patterns of mannerisms and speech rhythms, you adjust your assumptions, as needed, through questioning, then and only then should you make a final decision about an individual. It’s the combination of many details pointing in the same direction that will remind you that you’re on track. Since reading people is a science and an art, use the characteristics that have presented themselves to you and couple this with your intuition. If you do this consistently, you will rarely be wrong about someone.