How to Read People: 2 Skills You Need to Know

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

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Do you want to know how to read people? Is reading people based on instinct or are there techniques you can learn?

When learning how to read people, there are certain strategies that can help. You can learn skills for reading people and figuring out more about them.

Read more to find out the best skills for learning how to read people.

How to Read People

Reading people’s nonverbal cues isn’t just a matter of noticing what their bodies and voices are doing. You have to actually feel the same physical cues in yourself to empathize viscerally as you learn how to read people.

  • For example, when psychologist Milton Erickson saw one of his sisters tense her neck, to figure out what she was feeling, he had to tense his neck too. Only then did he realize her tension was caused by her discomfort in his presence. 

Learning to read people involves learning two sub-skills:

Skill #1: Observation

We all learned observation as children when we relied on other people to help us survive but couldn’t yet talk. Around age five, however, the skill started to languish because we had gained some independence from our parents and could focus on ourselves as a separate entity—we acquired new, attention-needing problems, and didn’t have the mental bandwidth for anyone other than ourselves.

There are some dos and don’ts of observation as you learn how to read people:

Dos

1. Start small or else you’ll overwhelm yourself. Don’t try to read the whole body at once.

  • For example, in a conversation, try to identify just one or two facial expressions that indicate that a person’s words aren’t giving the whole picture. Do this with multiple people, and only after you’ve gotten used to the face, move on to the voice and other body language. Write down the patterns you notice.

2. Focus only on observation. Don’t try to interpret what you notice, and especially don’t try to describe your thoughts in words.

3. People watch. Go to a public place and observe people. This exercise will allow you to watch people without having to maintain a conversation at the same time. Guess things about people based on what you see, such as their personality or profession.

4. Be subtle. Use only peripheral glances to spot clues. You’ll make people uncomfortable if you stare at them.

5. Encourage people to talk. Mirror them or respond with something that proves you’re listening. The longer they talk, the more they’ll communicate nonverbally.

6. Establish a baseline. When you’re studying a certain person, watch her interact with a variety of people to figure out her default emotion. Then, pay attention to changes from this baseline.

  • (Shortform example: If a normally cheerful person is smiling, that doesn’t tell you much. If a normally neutral person is smiling, however, that probably indicates emotion.)

7. Study the cues of a known emotion. When someone is about to do an action that most people feel the same way about (for example, most people get nervous before exams), look at what their bodies and voices are doing and file these cues under things people do when they’re nervous.

8. Watch out for mixed signals. A mixed signal is a discrepancy between words and nonverbal cues. Nonverbal communication more strongly reflects negative than positive emotions, so when you see conflicting signals, assume the negative emotion is what the person is actually feeling.

  • For example, if someone acts happy to see you, but you detect tension in her voice, she’s probably more uncomfortable than happy. 

9. Remember that all behavior is a form of communication. Clothing choices, silences, possessions—all of this communicates something. 

10. Notice your own nonverbal communication. This will make you more likely to notice other people’s cues and the emotions that prompted them. You’ll also improve your control of your own cues.

As you practice, you’ll improve at multitasking conversation and observation and you’ll notice more and more cues. You’ll start to physically anticipate and learn how to read people’s emotions.

Don’ts

There are some common observational mistakes to avoid as you learn how to read people:

1. Don’t assign cues to emotions universally. Different people may use the same nonverbal cue to express different emotions, which can affect your abilities as you learn how to read people’s emotions.

  • For example, one person may speak louder when they’re excited; another may do the exact same cue when they’re upset and have a completely different cue when they’re excited.

2. Don’t let your biases sneak in. If you like someone, you’ll be inclined to interpret all of their cues as positive.

3. Avoid Othello’s error, which is a type of bias in which you correctly match the cue to the emotion, but incorrectly guess the source of the emotion because you’re predisposed to attribute it to something in particular.

  • For example, in the play Othello, Othello questions his wife about adultery. She’s nervous during the conversation, which he assumes means she’s cheated on him, but in fact, she’s nervous because his questioning is so aggressive and intimidating.

4. Don’t be taken in by display rules. Different cultures have different ideas of what’s socially acceptable, and people’s behavior may stem from these rules. 

Skill #2: Interpretation

Now that you’re starting to see nonverbal cues, it’s time to figure out what they mean as you learn how to read people. Here are some cues associated with common emotions:

Like

The following cues often indicate that someone likes you:

  • Relaxing of the face, especially the forehead and mouth areas
  • Blood rushing to the face in the case of love
  • Genuine smiling, which widens the eyes and pulls the cheeks up, and is usually a response to something. Fake smiling can affect the eyes if the smile is broad, but is often mistimed.
  • Relaxed lips
  • Opening of the area around the eyes by raising eyebrows, widening eyes, and dilating pupils
  • Voice pitches higher and has a purring quality, and there’s no hesitation or tension
  • Standing closer to you
  • Loose arms
  • Nodding while you’re talking
  • Mirroring: At its most extreme, the other person matches your breathing.

Use this knowledge to:

  • Recognize these cues when they’re directed at you. This will tell you who likes you, which is valuable knowledge because it’s easiest to influence people who like you. 
  • Direct these cues at others to make them like you. People tend to like those who like them.
Dislike

The following cues often indicate dislike:

  • Squinting when you say something
  • Rolling the eyes when you talk about a strong opinion
  • Crossing the arms when you make a good point
  • Going quiet
  • Frowning or sneering while looking down
  • Glaring
  • Pursing the lips
  • Tensing the neck
  • Turning the body or feet away
  • Tension throughout the body
  • Avoiding you or responding slowly to your emails

It’s harder to notice the dislike cues than like cues for two reasons:

  • Most people don’t like conflict, and they don’t like to think about people not liking them. Even if you do notice the cues or feel that something’s wrong, you tend to ignore your observations. 
  • People often try to hide their dislike because it’s not socially appropriate. (People do sometimes hide the like cues as well because it lets the other person know they’re influenceable.)

To compensate for these difficulties, keep in mind the following as you understand how to read people’s emotions:

1. People are more likely to show these cues as part of a microexpression, which is an expression that appears for less than a second. These expressions come out either when someone isn’t aware of what they’re feeling, or when they’re trying to quash it but don’t quite manage. (It’s very hard to control the facial muscles.) To notice microexpressions, use your peripheral vision.

  • For example, King Louis XIV would sneak up on people to see how they reacted to his presence when they didn’t have a chance to prepare their faces in advance.  

2. People might give one of these cues as part of a mixed signal. This is because the tension between maintaining a polite exterior but maintaining secret tension is uncomfortable, and the negative part of the mixed signal allows for the release of tension.

  • (Shortform example: Someone might glare at you while complimenting you.)

3. People might say something general but direct it at you personally via body language. 

  • For example, in The Charterhouse of Parma, a prince talks to Count Mosca about love. However, while the conversation is general, the prince’s eye glints and he smiles in a way that suggests everything he’s saying is specifically about the count.

4. People might indicate their dislike by using words, such as sarcasm, but accompany their speech with positive body language. If this happens multiple times, you should consider the words.

5. People might give off a lot of these cues because their baseline is more negative than average. Compare how they are with you to how they act with others—if they don’t treat you any differently, they probably don’t dislike you.

Make sure you see signs of hostility multiple times before deciding that someone dislikes you. If you have concerns, you can even try to provoke dislike cues. For example, if you think someone is envious of you, talk about a recent success (without bragging) and look for microexpressions.

Use this knowledge to catch hostility early and take any of the following steps to mitigate any danger:

  • Goad the hostile person into some embarrassing action that harms their platform and reach.
  • Work hard to get them to like you.
  • Avoid them.
Dominance

Dominance is almost entirely communicated nonverbally because while human social evolution has resulted in the formation of hierarchy, nobody likes acknowledging this structure or their relative position and can be helpful in learning how to read a person.

The following cues demonstrate confidence and power, or a desire for power. (If someone doesn’t have power yet but displays all the cues, there’s a good chance they’ll get power because the cues attract others.)

  • Relaxed body and face
  • Slight closing of the eyelids
  • Making frequent eye contact
  • Less frequent smiling
  • Smiling tightly in response to something said
  • Touching people, such as back pats
  • Tall posture
  • Taking up physical space in a meeting and creating space around themselves
  • Arriving late
  • Punctuating (when there’s an argument, they’ll find a way to make it look like the other person started it)
  • Showing feelings such as boredom and annoyance
  • Being imitated by others
  • In couples, the dominant partner might pay attention to others but not to the partner.
  • In couples, one partner might do something negative (like drinking or faking an illness) to force sympathy and help from the other.
  • Men, in particular, feel entitled to control conversations, walk with purposeful strides, have a strong handshake, and have a tall posture.
  • Women in leadership positions exhibit a businesslike but still warm expression that’s also calm and confident. As more women come into power, these characteristics may be more universally associated with power.
    • For example, German chancellor Angela Merkel keeps her face still while listening to others, doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t smile too much, and uses her expression to attack people instead of her words.

People who have power but are scared to lose it exhibit the following cues:

  • Speaking with tension or hesitation
  • High-pitched voices
  • Talking animatedly without moving the body
  • Frequent blinking and controlled eye movements
  • Nervous wide eyes
  • Fake smiling and laughing
  • Touching themselves to calm themselves
  • Being over assertive to cover up insecurity 
  • Giving off mixed signals
    • For example, French president Nicolas Sarkozy interrupted people and patted them on the back, but he was unable to control the nervous twitch of his foot.

Use this knowledge as you understand how to read a person: 

  • Identify up-and-coming leaders who have positive energy and associate yourself with them.
  • Avoid arrogant, power-hungry people. 
  • Gain power by taking advantage of insecure people’s weaknesses. (This can backfire though—if they go down, sometimes they’ll drag you with them.)
Deception

Humans are inherently gullible because we want to believe that nice-sounding things—such as that all people are good—are true.

People purposefully use the following cues to try to distract you from whatever it is they’re really feeling and thinking: 

  • Overanimation, such as smiling frequently, joking, and being very friendly
  • Expressing conviction 
  • Expressing mixed signals in which one part of the body is expressive but other parts are tense. The face and mouth are easiest to control, so this is often the animated part, but the animation can also be gesturing.
  • Freezing when questioned

The best deceivers are aware of the above cues and do the opposite by:

  • Stilling their faces and acting serious
  • Giving logical explanations
  • Acting competent
  • Being boring
    • For example, Victor Lustig, a master con artist, would bore his marks with details about bonds and securities.

To compensate for these difficulties, pay attention to which nonverbal cues accompany specific words and speech because it’s hard to get the timing right. For example, someone might shake their fist in anger but do it slightly before or after they would actually be feeling the emotion if it were real.

Use your knowledge of deception cues to:

  • Ignore white lies. White lies are low stakes and a part of social convention (it would be rude to be honest all the time). It’s best to just ignore this kind of deception because finding out the truth would only hurt your feelings. 
  • Avoid falling for cons. If you think you’re being deceived, the best thing to do is to let the deceiver keep telling their story so that you have more time to look for nonverbal cues. Then, ask an uncomfortable question and look for microexpressions.

Now that you know how to read a person, you can use your skills to forge connections and strong relationships.

How to Read People: 2 Skills You Need to Know

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  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
  • How you behave differently when you're in a group
  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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