How to Read a Person: 3 Insightful Tips From Robert Greene

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Daily Laws" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are people really thinking? What are their true emotions? What if you could know?

According to Robert Greene, power dynamics play a role in all areas of life. You must learn how to navigate them to get what you want. To use power dynamics to your advantage, you must first develop a realistic understanding of human nature. That requires you to get past a person’s facade.

Continue reading to learn how to read a person and understand who they truly are and what they really want.

Reading the Person Behind the Mask

In public, everyone wears a mask that hides unpleasant emotions and socially unacceptable behaviors like hatred to avoid disagreement or rejection. To gain power, use these truths about human nature to learn how to read a person. Then you’ll know the true emotions behind the masks, and you’ll have more direction in your social interactions.

(Shortform note: Malcolm Gladwell explains why we tend to naturally assume that people present themselves truthfully. In Talking to Strangers, he argues that this assumption of transparency is a social adaptation that allows people to communicate quickly with one another. Like Greene, Gladwell points out that always assuming transparency in others can be problematic, yet he asserts it’s a necessary approach when interacting with strangers. He argues that if we all distrusted every interaction, our social lives would be difficult to navigate.)

Greene writes that, to read people’s true emotions, you must develop empathy—the ability to see from another person’s perspective. This allows you to view people more rationally, rather than through the filter of your own emotions, and to distinguish allies from rivals. To develop empathy, refrain from judging others immediately based on how they look or behave. Instead, accumulate concrete evidence to better understand people’s true feelings and intentions.

(Shortform note: Greene focuses on empathy as a tool for reading people, but empathizing with others is also key to building trust, which Evy Poumpouras argues is necessary if you want to influence others. In Becoming Bulletproof, Poumpouras writes that interacting with others without empathy might lead them to be suspicious and defensive, which can make it harder to influence them.)

Greene offers three tips on how to read people.

Tip 1: Consider Past Behaviors

Greene says you should judge people based on their past actions rather than on their words or reputation because their words and reputation might make someone appear kind or generous when they’re actually not. Past patterns of behavior, however, reflect the truth. For example, someone might say that they value generosity, but in the past, you’ve seen that they never tip at restaurants.

Tip 2: Notice Extreme Behaviors

People who are suppressing negative emotions or intentions often compensate by exaggerating the opposite behavior. For example, someone may appear overly friendly to mask their irritation. Greene says you can judge whether these behaviors are genuine by looking for subtle signals betraying their true feelings, such as an eye roll.

Tip 3: Determine Self-Interest

According to Greene, you can often judge a person’s real motives by reflecting on who benefits from a situation or event. To varying degrees, everyone is occupied with their own wants and needs. And, if you detect that someone will benefit more than you will from an interaction, this might clue you in to possible underhanded intentions, which can help you avoid deception. For example, a common way people promote their own interests is by giving gifts to lower other people’s defenses and make them feel indebted to them.

Detecting Deception Through Verbal Cues

Greene’s strategies on what to look for to uncover people’s hidden emotions and intentions focus on extreme behaviors and past situations. In Becoming Bulletproof, Evy Poumpouras points out additional suggestions on how to understand others through the way they speak, as well as more evidence you can look for in the moment.

First, she recommends establishing a baseline of their behavior, or how they normally act. Then, when you interact with them, note unusual changes in their behavior or words. Look for multiple “red flags,” and keep these verbal cues in mind:

Present tense—While Greene advises relying on past behaviors rather than people’s words, Poumpouras points out that the way people tell stories can be just as revealing. Since stories happened in the past, people should use the past tense when telling them. When people use the present tense, it might be a clue that they’re making up the story as they go.

Overdramatic answers—Greene contends that people exaggerate behaviors to cover up their true emotions. Similarly, Poumpouras says that deceptive people often exaggerate through their words as well, such as swearing on the life of a family member.

Minimizing the importance of an issue or acting as if they’re in a hurry—Poumpouras explains that people who are lying might brush off a subject or act as if you’re wasting their time. This might indicate they’re trying to end the conversation and avoid further questions. This cue might help you determine whether someone’s masking their self-interest, as Greene suggests, by omitting or brushing off any discussion about personal benefits.
How to Read a Person: 3 Insightful Tips From Robert Greene

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  • Why our beliefs tend to leave us feeling unhappy and unfulfilled
  • How to attune yourself to the reality of how the world really works
  • How to manage your emotions and develop rationality

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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