The ability to read others will greatly affect how you deal with them. When you understand how another person is feeling, you can adapt your message and communication style to make sure it is received in the best way possible.
But what should you be listening for? And what other signs can tip you off to what someone is thinking or feeling?
If you follow my column, you’re familiar with LaRae Quy. LaRae, who spent 23 years as a counterintelligence agent for the FBI, now spends her time writing, speaking, and teaching others tips that she learned while working for the Bureau. Those tips provide valuable lessons for entrepreneurs, business owners, and everyone else. (You can read more of LaRae’s advice in my previous articles “An FBI Agent’s 5 Steps to Developing Mental Toughness” and “An FBI Agent’s 8 Ways to Spot a Liar.” Also make sure to check out her website.)
As LaRae put it:
“You don’t need to be a top-notch interrogator to figure out what is going on in someone’s head. The signals are always there — all you need to do is know what to look for.”
Here are her nine tips for reading others:
1. Create a baseline.
People have different quirks and patterns of behavior. For example, they might clear their throat, look at the floor while talking, cross their arms, scratch their head, stroke their neck, squint, pout, or jiggle their feet frequently. Initially, we may not even notice when others do these things. If we do, we don’t give it much attention.
People display these behaviors for different reasons. They could simply be mannerisms. Sometimes, however, these same actions could be indicative of deception, anger, or nervousness.
Creating a mental baseline of others’ normal behavior will help you …
2. Look for deviations.
Pay attention to inconsistencies between the baseline you’ve created and the person’s words and gestures.
For example: You’ve noticed that an important supplier of yours has the habit of clearing his throat repeatedly when nervous. As he introduces some relatively small changes to your business arrangement, he starts to do this. Is there more here than meets the eye?
You might decide to probe further, asking a few more questions than you would have normally.
3. Notice clusters of gestures.
No lone gesture or word necessarily means anything, but when several behavioral aberrations are clumped together, take notice.
For example, not only does your supplier keep clearing his throat, but he also does that head scratching thing. And he keeps shuffling his feet.
Proceed with caution.
4. Compare and contrast.
OK, so you’ve noticed that someone is acting a little different than normal. Move your observation up a notch to see if and when that person repeats the same behavior with others in your group.
Continue to observe the person as he or she interacts with others in the room. Does the person’s expression change? How about his or her posture and body language?
5. Look into the mirror.
Mirror neurons are built-in monitors in our brain that reflect other people’s state of mind. We are wired to read one another’s body language. A smile activates the smile muscles in our own faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles.
When we see someone we like, our eyebrows arch, facial muscles relax, head tilts, and blood flows to our lips making them full.
If your partner doesn’t reciprocate that behavior, this person could be sending you a clear message: He or she doesn’t like you or isn’t happy with something you’ve done.
6. Identify the strong voice.
The most powerful person is not always the one sitting at the head of the table.
Confident people have strong voices. Around a conference room table, the most confident person is very likely to be the most powerful one: expansive posture, strong voice, and a big smile. (Don’t confuse a loud voice with a strong one.)
If you’re pitching an idea to a group, it’s easy to pay attention to the leader of the team. But that leader may have a weak personality. In reality, he or she depends heavily on others to make decisions, and is easily influenced by them.
Identify the strong voice, and your chances for success increase dramatically.
7. Observe how they walk.
Oftentimes, people who shuffle along, lack a flowing motion in their movements, or keep their head down, lack self-confidence.
If you notice these traits in a member of your team, you might make an extra effort to offer commendation, in an attempt to help build the person’s confidence. Or you may need to ask him or her more direct questions during a meeting, in order to pull those great ideas out into the open.
8. Pinpoint action words.
As an FBI agent, I found words were the closest way for me to get into another person’s head. Words represent thoughts, so identify the word that is freighted with meaning.
For example, if your boss says she’s “decided to go with brand X,” the action word is “decided.” This single word indicates that most likely your boss 1) is not impulsive, 2) weighed several options, and 3) thinks things through.
Action words offer insights into the way a person thinks.
9. Look for personality clues.
Each of us has a unique personality, but there are basic clarifications that can help you relate to another person so you can read him or her accurately.
- Does someone exhibit more introverted or extroverted behavior?
- Does he or she seem driven by relationships or significance?
- How does the person handle risk and uncertainty?
- What feeds his or her ego?
- What are the person’s behaviors when stressed?
- What are the person’s behaviors when relaxed?
Putting it all together
As always, LaRae’s tips get me thinking. As she acknowledges, it takes time to learn how to read people accurately. And of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But keeping these principles in mind as you build your powers of observation will greatly enhance your ability to read others, understand their thinking, and communicate effectively.