Do you want to be able to improve your communication with others? Do you suspect someone may not be all that they seem? The skills and ability to “read” people can go a very long way. Especially if you want, or need, to understand or learn the real gist of what someone you are interacting with may be all about in your personal or professional life.
People in many professions receive training on how to read people. The obvious roles needing these skills include those in psychology or related health and social service fields. There are many other jobs though that use various techniques of how to read people. This ranges from salespeople to criminal investigators. Being able to read people involves paying attention and taking notice. You need to be able to interpret both verbal and non-verbal communication and cues in others.
We all give off a lot of information in the way we use our bodies, the way we speak, and our mannerisms and gestures. What we say is not always what we mean or feel. If you think reading people is all about being able to read someone’s mind and see auras, think again! It is not so much about mind reading and knowing other people’s thoughts. It is more about being keenly observant. It is about knowing what body language to pay attention to and when.
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FBI Meaning of How To Read People
Unsurprisingly, criminal investigators such as FBI agents use a combination of observational, psychological, and analytical techniques for reading people. Known as profiling, this sifts through suspects and the bad guys. Any fans out there of TV crime shows will have seen this process dramatized. So how do they do this in reality? According to ex FBI agent LaRae Quy, it is about looking out for signals. Techniques she has shared on how to read people from her time as an agent include identifying:
- Baselines: Some people have mannerisms and habits that they use regularly. They may be the “norm” for them, but in another person may state something else. This includes things like arm crossing, feet jiggling, and throat clearing. If it just a particular behavior quirk, it creates part of their baseline. Other factors or excessive repetition may show that they are anxious, uncomfortable, or nervous.
- Differences: Once you understand what a person’s normal or baseline behavior is, you need to be able to spot the differences. These often show during interaction with other people. Compare how they interact with you one on one, how they interact with others individually, and how they behave in a group situation. Is it consistent or does it change over time and with other people?
- Voices and Language: How people speak can say a lot about them. Consider volume and tone of voice. Listen to the individual words, style of language and phrases they use when speaking. Hearing the strength or conviction of someone’s words can often say more about someone’s thoughts than how loudly they speak.
- Movement: Observe how people move when they are walking. Do they walk with long open strides or shuffle their footsteps? Look at how a person holds their head and shoulders and where they look when they are moving. Is his or her body language typical of someone who is happy and open? Or is it closed as if they are hiding or protecting something?
- Clusters: One type of action, movement, or wording on its own might not say something unusual. Yet, repetition of one movement or seeing several non-verbal cues happen together in a cluster might. An example of an obvious cluster would be someone whose body language shows they are clearly anxious. They may be fidgeting, physically sweating, and muttering at the same time.
- Reflections: We often unconsciously mimic or mirror back the emotions and facial expressions we see in others. Mimicking happens when we are comfortable with someone, but also if we are not. If we see someone smiling, we may start to form a smile. If someone crosses their legs or adjusts their posture while sitting, we may find ourselves doing the same thing. Observing whether any mimicry is happening or not can give you a clue about how someone is feeling. People can fake this, but over time, they cannot usually maintain it.
- Personalities: Know the basics of people’s personality traits. This includes whether they tend towards introversion or extroversion. What is their decision-making process? What drives and motivates them? Is it meaning or facts? How people make decisions, manage risks and stress, can say a lot about them and their thoughts and state of mind.
Psychology Tricks to Read People
Anyone trained in how to read people’s behavior learns and uses tricks gleaned from psychology. The skills and strategies in the previous section are important. This includes being able to understand personality types, find a baseline, look for clusters, understand movement and body language, mirroring, and ways people speak. If you want to go deeper into these, there are many books available to read up and learn such as Reading People by Jo-Ellen Dimitrius.
To get an accurate read on other people you also need to know a bit of psychology about yourself as well! This includes:
Knowing Your Biases
To read other people accurately you need to be aware of what your own biases are. Your biases can influence your judgment. We all have them. The trick is to be able to reflect on them and put them aside when you are evaluating other people. That way, you stay neutral and objective. For example, it is human nature to feel an affinity or drawn to people who are similar to you.
Using Your Intuition
People’s intuition or gut feelings, whatever you call it, are often fairly accurate. Never underestimate your ability to read into a person or situation through trusting in your instinct and emotions. First impressions are powerful. What you first sense about someone is often right. However, it is important to be open to changing your mind and rethinking your initial take on a person. Honing in on your ability to read people intuitively does not necessarily involve intense scrutiny. You need to be relaxed and open to what your gut tells you, and to be able to reflect on what you see and hear.
Drilling down a little further, other cues you can use your observational skills to look for include:
You can often tell a lot about someone from his or her overall appearance. Also, look at the smaller detail in the way people dress and adorn themselves. For example, the quality of someone’s clothes and fabrics can be indicative of income levels. A preference for formal or casual styles may reflect someone’s personality. Accessories, jewelry, and styles of piercings and tattoos may reflect their families, interests, hobbies, or spiritual belief systems.
Context and Environment
It is also vital to take into consideration the context and environment you are observing someone’s behavior in. Someone sitting in a big meeting room with their arms crossed may be feeling defensive, or they may simply be feeling a little cold! If you are listening to someone in conversation, are their answers and use of language limited by being asked closed questions? Or, are they asking or responding to open-ended questions where they can speak in detail?
Someone’s facial expressions can say a lot, but the finer detail on someone’s face can say more about their personality. Look at whether someone has developed long-term frown lines on the bridge of their nose or forehead from worry. Do they have wrinkles at the corner of their eyes from smiling or laughing? Do they have a clenched jaw or pursed lips, or is their mouth relaxed? Are their eyes bright and sparkling, dull, sad, guarded? Do they make direct eye-contact or look away?
Use of Touch
If and how someone touches other people, and how you feel when they touch you is another signal to read. Do they have a warm, firm handshake that indicates they are open and confident, or clammy hands indicating they may be anxious? Do they touch other people on their shoulders or back, and are others comfortable with them doing this?
How to Read People: Bottom Line
The bottom line on how to read people is to be able to recognize what is normal behavior for a person, and what is not. It is not the ability to read minds. Reading people is both a learned and innate process. Skilled readers of other people have a broad understanding of human nature and personality traits. They understand how different situations, time, and context can influence behavior. They understand the meaning of different body languages and postures. Good observation and listening skills are essential to be able to read other people! As is the ability to trust your own intuition and reflect on what you see, hear and understand about others.