Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to Get Better at Reading People

"Reading" people is one of the most important, and vastly underrated, skills we can possess. I'll operationally define "reading" as the process of understanding why people believe, think, and behave the way they do. The better you get at reading people, the easier it becomes to navigate our social world. Honing this one skill will make you 

Pretty much all of my own personal success can be directly attributed to this skill. Aside from my better-than-average skill at understanding human behavior, I'm decidedly average. I'm not especially smart, funny, or athletic. Any "talents" I possess are a function of a lot of hard work, not the result of winning a genetic lottery. Despite all of the apparent limitations, I've been able to do some pretty cool shit in my life like earn multiple degrees, spend over a decade teaching, written books, run ultramarathons, and even fought a pro mma fight. By my count, I've had about fourteen jobs in my life and have never "lost" an interview. I've always gotten the job. All because I "get" people a little better than most.

My own "people reading" skills were developed early in childhood, mostly as a result of weird passive-aggressive martyr tendencies that defined my immediate and extended family. People almost always had a hidden motive, so I needed to be able to ignore the facade and assess their real intent. That "skill" was so deeply ingrained in me, I wasn't even aware of it until my thirties. Once I "discovered" it, I was able to actively work to improve the skill. 

The Challenge


Reading people is tricky because we always wear masks to hide our real selves, even to those closest to us. Deep down, all of us have elements of our personality that are so disturbing, we'll never let others see them. As we go through life, we all experience dark thoughts, totally inappropriate hedonistic sexual desires, and occasional thoughts of unspeakable violence. We also have incredible insecurities that, if discovered, would reveal that we're really just barely winging this game of life. Worse, we assume we're the only people that have these feelings. As such, all of us are VERY highly motivated to bury them as deep as we possibly can, put on a smile, and try to convince the rest of the world that we have our shit together. 

The problem - most people assume others do not have an elaborate mask that hides their real self. They take people at face value, then get confused when their ability to explain, predict, or even influence their behavior fails. Even if they do look behind the facade, they assume it's just a flimsy cardboard mask that's easily circumvented. As I'll describe in the next section, that false confidence causes them to stop searching once they believe they've discovered "the truth." 


The Basic Principles


Developing your people reading skills is pretty simple, it just takes a lot of practice. Understanding some basic principles is a prerequisite to reading people.


  • Understand and accept that you can never really know anyone. No matter how close we are to someone, they will never reveal everything. Ever. They would rather choose death. Dramatic, but true. The reason this is important is because, as I stated above, it causes us to stop searching. Until that person surprises us by doing something completely unpredictable. As good as I think I am at reading people, I fully understand I can only ever see a minuscule fraction of people's real self. Even my wife.
  • Foster curiosity. Curiosity is the engine that fuels the ability to read people. In order to improve, you have to be obsessively curious about what makes people tick. The moment understanding human behavior becomes boring is the moment your skills become ineffective.
  • We all have common behavior patterns. Yes, it's true that we're all individual snowflakes. But we're still snow. We're cold, fall from the sky, and melt at a specified temperature. Like snowflakes, humans have almost universal similarities. These universals can be learned from all sorts of sources. Many of the similarities I use regularly come from the study of psychology in general and social psychology in particular, studying psychics (read up on "cold reading"), and just paying attention to general sociocultural trends. Check out the movie Leap of Faith
  • We all have "tells." All of us wear masks, and we'll use different masks for different situations. These masks are essentially lies that we carefully fabricate. The problem, of course, is that we have a million details to monitor, especially when switching masks. Looking for and recognizing incongruencies between people's masks is a very easy way to see behind the masks. In the movie Gattaca, the main character is assuming the personality of another dude with the goal of becoming an astronaut. He fools everyone throughout the movie, except for the guy that collects urine samples. How did he know the main character wasn't who he claimed to be? He pissed with the wrong hand. Everyone has tells; you just need to keep your eyes open.
  • Observe people without judgment. I was originally trained as an experimental social psychologist, which provided a perfect foundation for learning how to read people. Being an experimental psychologist requires the observer to watch what's happening around them without interpreting. It's a deceptively hard thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Interpretation comes later. If we try to interpret at the time, the interpretation interferes with the continued observation because we assign motives and begin introducing stereotypes. 
  • Look for patterns, especially hypocrisy. We like to believe we possess a set of values, beliefs, or principles that guide our behaviors. We like to believe we're capable of intellectualizing anything and everything we do. We like to believe we're rational, logical creatures. But we're not. At all. Humans are anything but rational, logical creatures. Instead, we have biological drives that act as an invisible hand that compels us to do the things we do. When processing after the fact, we rationalize our behaviors in some way... and we're really good at that. Understanding this principle is probably the single biggest key to reading people, and it's really easy to see. Just look for hypocrisy. We're exceptionally bad at aligning our behaviors and stated beliefs. Hell, I'm acutely aware of this principle and still fall into the trap all the time. 
  • Never assume you have the puzzle figured out. I've spent nearly four decades observing human behavior. I've definitely gotten better to the point where I'm really good. Yet I've just scratched the surface. There's always new individuals with different sociocultural backgrounds, new trends, new environmental factors, and a host of other things that are always changing. More significantly, individuals themselves are incredibly dynamic. The person I could read really well a few years ago may be completely unreadable today because something about them changed. 


How to Improve


So how exactly do we get better? For the novice, here are my suggestions:

  • Read the book "Social Animal" by Elliot Aronson. This is the gold standard for a primer in understanding why we do the things we do.
  • Read the book "The Art of Seduction" by Robert Greene. Weird, but effective. Greene's book outlines some basic human personality types. Since it's framed as "seduction" and sexual desire is perhaps our strongest social drive, it's far more practical than other books about personality types.
  • Read up on "cold reading" and "mentalism" (used by psychics and magicians, respectively.) Ian Rowland has some wonderfully useful stuff.
  • People watch. Find a comfortable place with a large number of people, and just observe their behaviors. Continually ask yourself "why are they doing what they're doing right now?" Once you feel comfortable watching people, try to predict what they do next. That forces you to observe seemingly insignificant behaviors that normally don't register in our brains.
  • Plumb the depths of your own psyche. One of the best exercises you can do is to consider why YOU do the things you do. In this specific situation, asking how and why you classify and stereotype people can be an invaluable exercise. There's a reason we react a certain way towards certain people, and understanding why gives you insight to exactly what they do to earn that classification. Do that enough and you start to notice your own patterns of observation, which can clue you in to the stuff you're ignoring. In short- this exercise improves your ability to observe more details. 
This list is far from comprehensive; it's intended to be a VERY basic primer. I love talking about the topic, so please post any questions you may have in the comment section.

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