Why You’re Probably Doing it Wrong
Many people believe they’re “good with people.” It’s very easy to boldly claim that you understand another person’s motivations, without ever really stopping to check if you’re correct. Confirmation bias, unfortunately, is a more likely explanation—i.e., you remember all those times your assessments were correct and ignore or downplay the times you clearly got it wrong. That, or you simply never ask if you’re right in the first place. How many times have you heard, “I used to think so-and-so was such-and-such kind of person, but once I got to know them, I realized I was completely wrong about them”?
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The fact is that people are often far less accurate judges of character than they like to believe. If you are reading this book, chances are you know that there are a few things you could probably learn. It never hurts to start a new endeavor on a blank slate. After all, nothing can get in the way of learning truly effective techniques like the conviction that you know everything already and don’t need to learn!
So, with that in mind, what are the obstacles to becoming brilliant at reading people?
Firstly, the biggest thing to remember is the effect of context. Maybe you’ve seen a listicle online to the effect of “5 Telltale Signs Someone is Lying,” and went on to see if you could spot any in real life. The trouble with this is obvious: is the person looking up and to the left because they’re telling a lie, or has their attention simply been caught by something on the roof?
In the same vein, we cannot take a single statement, facial expression, behavior, or moment to tell us something definitive about the whole person. Have you not already done something today that, if analyzed alone, would lead to some completely nonsensical conclusions about your character? Analysis can only happen with data—not a single datum—and it can only happen when we are able to see broader trends.
Another way that smart people can come to not-so-smart conclusions about others is if they fail to establish a baseline. The guy in front of you may be making lots of eye contact, smiling often, complimenting you, nodding, even touching your arm occasionally. You could conclude that this guy must really like you until you realize that this is how he is with every person he meets. He in fact is showing you no interest above his normal baseline, so all your observations don’t quite lead where they ordinarily would.
Finally, there’s something to consider when you’re studying other human beings, and it’s often a real blind spot: yourself. You might decide that someone is trying to deceive you, but completely fail to take into account your own paranoid and cautious nature, and the fact that you were recently lied to and are not quite over it yet.
By remembering a few simple principles, we can ensure that our analysis is always contextual, well-considered, and three-dimensional. It’s about synthesizing the information we have in front of us into a coherent working theory, rather than simply spotting a few stereotypical behaviors and coming to easy conclusions.