Reading people helps you understand them more accurately. It helps you recognize their emotions and know them better. The cues are always there – you just need to look for them.
Your ability to read people will affect how you deal with them. The more accurately you read them, the more effective your communication will be.
It simply requires you to utilize your senses and look further than where you usually focus your attention. You need to observe everything starting from their body language, expressions to their physical movements and your intuition about the person as well.
Here are a few tips to help you learn to read people.
1. Start with an open state of mind. Before even attempting to read people, you must have an open mind. Your emotions and past experiences with people can influence your impressions and opinions. This can lead you to misread people. Try and approach every interaction and situation objectively with an open mind.
2. Pay attention to appearances. Appearances can tell you a lot about people. For instance, if someone wears quirky accessories, it indicates a creative mind. If someone wears bright, loud colors, it may be a sign of their strong outgoing personality.
3. Observe people’s posture. When reading people, notice their posture.
For instance, if someone walks with a puffed-out chest, it can be a sign of a big ego. If someone holds their head high, it tells you that the person is confident.
4. Create a baseline. A baseline is nothing but knowing how the person behaves normally in the absence of any external factors that could modify their behavior. Before creating any baseline, make sure you know the person well. This will help you get to know their usual mannerisms. Crossed arms, scratching one’s head, looking at the floor while talking or sweating on the forehead does not always mean the person is nervous. It may simply mean the temperature is hot, or it might just be something they do out of habit. Once you are acquainted with a person’s mannerisms and common reactions, it will be easier for you to notice behavioral changes.
5. Don’t shrug off small talk. Small talk gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the other person. It helps you learn how the person behaves in normal situations so that you can accurately spot any behavior that is out of the ordinary.
For instance, you will know whether the person avoids eye contact or looks at the floor when he is relaxed. This will help you identify any deviation from their usual actions and gestures. When you notice a change in their tone, pace or body language, you’ll know that something has raised a concern or otherwise caused a shift in emotions.
6. Scan the person’s overall behavior. If someone looks down at the floor during a conversation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are nervous or anxious. They simply might be trying to remember something that they forgot. Rather than focusing on individual gestures, do a complete scan of their overall body language, the tone of voice, pitch, expressions, etc.
7. Compare their behavior in other settings or with other people. If you notice someone behaving differently from the way they normally do, try to observe more closely. Watch them with other people to see if they repeat the same behavior. Does their expression, body language, and body posture change?
8. Ask direct questions. Stay away from vague questions. Ask questions that require a straight answer. Once you ask a question, don’t interrupt while they’re answering. Observe the person’s mannerisms as they talk.
9. Word choice gives you insight into the person. When someone says "This is my second promotion,” they are calling attention to the fact that they earned a promotion previously. These type of people likely rely on others to boost their self-image. It tells you that this person needs other people’s praise to feel good about himself.
10. Watch for physical movements. Physical movements have meaning. When people bite their lips, they might be trying to soothe themselves in an awkward situation. Studies have shown that stress may lead to biting the inner lining of lips in children. (1)
11. Notice facial markings. Emotions usually have a way of leaving a mark on our face. For instance, deep worry lines on a person’s forehead indicate overthinking or excessive worrying.
12. Watch people’s eyes. To read people, you can observe their eyes. If someone makes eye contact while talking to you, it is regarded as positive eye contact and shows that the other person is interested in the converstaion. However, continuous stares are not appreciated.
13. Pay attention to people’s tone of voice. The tone and volume of a person’s voice can say a lot about their emotions. Does their tone feel soothing or is it whiny or aggressive? This gives you an idea what emotions they are going through at the moment.
14. Look for micro-expressions. Sometimes in conversations, you may come to know the true expression of the person if you stay alert. For instance, when you see someone smiling at you with their mouth but seeming to scowl with their eyebrows, it indicates that the smile may not be from their heart. If you are not observant, you may end up missing it. It’s easy for a person to exhibit certain body language and plaster a fake expression on their face, but when you sense something wrong, make it a point to look for micro-expressions.
15. Don’t make assumptions. Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings. When you make assumptions, it influences how you read people. For instance, if you assume someone is angry, then whatever they say or do will seem like concealed anger to you. When your wife goes to bed early rather than watching your favorite TV show with you as she usually does, you assume she’s not interested in spending time with you. But she may be really exhausted after a long day. Relax when watching people. Keep your mind open and positive.
16. Look for patterns. When you start analyzing someone, look for patterns of related signals that coincide with a specific behavior or state of mind. Single traits rarely tell you anything about a person. For instance, let’s say your barista has a frown on their face while serving you coffee. There can be many reasons for this. He or she might be sad or had a disagreement with their boss before the shift. But if you notice that they seem to display contempt every time they serve a customer, then you’ve identified a pattern.
17. Value your gut feelings. It is important to acknowledge what your gut says, especially when you meet someone for the first time. Your gut feelings are your internal truth meter that tells you whether to trust someone.
18. Mirror other people’s facial expressions, posture, and body language. Humans are wired in such a way that we mirror each other’s body language and state of mind. A smile activates a smile, and an expansive body posture raises your confidence. For instance, if someone greets you with a smile in the morning, it brightens up your day, and you are bound to reciprocate in the same manner spreading positivity. Adopting other people’s expressions and body language not only helps you build better rapport but also enables you to understand how they might be feeling. If the person doesn’t respond in the same way, you know they’re not in a cheerful mood or maybe not so fond of you.
19. Practice watching people. The more you study people, the more you can read them accurately. Practice watching talk shows on mute. This can help you see what people are feeling when they are talking, without hearing any words. Then, watch again with the sound on and see if their words match their expressions.
Note: The content has been edited and reviewed by Angela Webb, Licensed Psychologist.
- Bhatia SK, Goyal A, Kapur A. Habitual biting of oral mucosa: A conservative treatment. Complimentary Clinical Dentistry. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3793567/. Published September 2013.