A man who knows how to read other people is having a serious conversation with another man in an office

How well do you recognize other people’s personality types, motives, and intentions? If you were armed with that knowledge, what difference would it make?

A judo practitioner responds to a physical attack with an awareness of their opponent’s intentions. In the same way, you can respond to a verbal confrontation by reading the other person and figuring out who they are and what they need from the encounter.

Read on for practical advice on how to read other people, according to Verbal Judo by George Thompson.

How to Read Other People

You can use empathy to better understand other people and more easily resolve conflicts. To do this, Thompson writes that it’s helpful to learn to recognize what kind of person you’re dealing with. He offers the following advice on how to read other people, contending that people fall into one of three categories.

First are people who tend to cooperate and like to avoid confrontation. Thompson explains that you probably won’t have to use your skills in Verbal Judo when you encounter this sort of person. But he points out that the fact that someone cooperates with you doesn’t mean you should neglect to treat them thoughtfully or respectfully. 

Second are people who resist authority. They might push back on your requests, and Thompson explains that they tend to ask “why?” He explains that you should always give a genuine answer to this question: Answering “why” a particular course of action is best gives you a chance to explain how the solution you’re proposing will help the other person. That makes them more likely to decide to cooperate with you. 

Third are people who present themselves as cooperative but really resent authority. Thompson explains that this person will often speak courteously in the moment and only later complain about you or try to seek revenge. It’s hard to know when someone falls into this category because they aren’t honest about their feelings. But, once you’ve recognized that someone is this kind of person, Thompson recommends being direct with them and allowing them to either voice their complaints or decline to do so.

Thompson explains that, once you determine what kind of person you’re dealing with, you’ll know how to handle the conversation. With people who tend to cooperate, all you need to do is propose a good solution, and they’ll likely be happy to go along with you. With people who resist authority, you should focus on explaining what they’ll gain by cooperating—or what they’ll lose by refusing—to get them on board. And with people who act cooperative but feel resentful, you should ask them for their opinion: If they have something useful to contribute, they will—and otherwise they’ll just cooperate. The goal is to interact with each type of person effectively but respectfully, using what you know about their personality.

How Do Professionals Handle the Three Personality Types?

If you want to see the expert way to deal with Thompson’s three personality types, pay attention the next time you go to the airport. The stresses of air travel can bring out the worst in people. So airlines sometimes send flight attendants and gate agents to Verbal Judo training, where they learn techniques for getting people to follow the rules and preventing confrontations from escalating.

Thompson’s first type of person, who tends to cooperate, is the most common. So, when a gate agent makes an announcement, they often explain what they want everyone to do and why. If they want you to stay in your seat a little longer to leave a clear path for people who need to get on the plane early, they explain that logic. They know that most people at the gate will cooperate if they know the rules and why they exist.

The second kind of person, who resists authority, might be the person the gate agent is talking to in a slow, patient voice. Maybe this person wants to take a carry-on bag that’s too big onto the plane. The gate agent probably explains what they gain by cooperating (maybe they can gate-check the bag for free) or what they’ll lose by not cooperating (perhaps they won’t be allowed on the plane if they won’t check the bag). The person gets to choose.

The third kind of person, who cooperates first and complains later, might be the person being offered extra miles or an upgraded seat by a flight attendant. (Perhaps this person felt like the gate agent didn’t hear their concerns, and they’re complaining to the flight attendant about it later.) Well-trained airline workers know how to work with even the grumpiest travelers—and find a solution that gets everyone in their seats in time for the scheduled departure. 
How to Read Other People & Get Them to Cooperate

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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