An older woman holding a mug and reading a book by a window.

Where do subconscious motivations come from? What can nonverbal cues tell you? Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what people are thinking without asking them?

In Read People Like a Book, Patrick King claims that anyone can look at a person and know what type of person they are. When you’ve mastered this ability, you can handle conflict better and call out a liar from a mile away.

Read below for a brief overview of Read People Like a Book.

Read People Like a Book by Patrick King

In Read People Like a Book, Patrick King argues that you can come close to reading people by learning how to interpret peoples’ speech, behavior, body language, and possessions to glean insights into their motivations and personalities. This ability allows you to more effectively navigate relationships, deal with difficult personalities, get what you want from others—and spot a liar.

Patrick King is a social interaction specialist who coaches people on dating, personal presentation, and communication. He’s written e-books on online dating, emotional intelligence, and communication.

In this guide, we’ll outline King’s advice on what to look for when reading other people, taking into consideration factors like situational context, your own biases, and the different drives and patterns of thinking that nonverbal communication often reflects. Along the way, we’ll examine advice from other experts on how to read people, as well as additional theories explaining these techniques. 

How to Approach Reading People

King writes that people generally consider themselves good judges of character, but in reality, assessing another person is harder than it seems—people often misinterpret signs and then arrive at misguided conclusions about how another person feels or thinks. 

King advises that to avoid falling into this trap when trying to read another person, you should consider some factors that might affect your interpretation of their behavior:

1. Behavioral status quo: To accurately read someone, you have to know how they normally behave and speak so you can pick up on anomalies or changes in their behavior. For instance, if your friend always has a lot of energy, you shouldn’t interpret this as excitement about something that just happened—that may simply be their baseline state of being. 

2. Multiple data points: You can’t form a conclusion about someone based on a single data point—a single sentence or gesture, for example. You must pay attention to multiple data points to form an accurate conclusion about someone’s inner state. 

3. Context: You have to consider the context in which a behavior is happening, or you’ll likely misinterpret that behavior. For instance, if you see someone moving around restlessly, you might read that behavior as nervousness, when in reality, it might simply be cold in the room and the person is trying to stay warm. 

Additionally, recognize that you yourself might affect the other person’s behavior. For example, if you’re in a position of power, the other person may change their body language in response, which might skew how they present themselves. 

4. Your own biases: Recognize that you may have prejudices and assumptions that lead you to interpret cues in a certain way. For example, if you tend to be suspicious of others, you may interpret someone’s actions as deceitful when they’re not. 

What Drives Behavior?

King writes that to determine why a person behaves in a certain way, you must understand two aspects of their psyche: their motivations and personality

Motivations are the urges and wants that compel a person to act. These include subconscious urges, the pursuit of pleasure, human needs, and our ego. We’ll examine each of these factors, as well as personality, in the following sections.

Subconscious Urges

Subconscious motivations, writes King, come from the part of your psyche that psychologist Carl Jung called the shadow—the part we try to ignore, repress, and hide from others. In the shadow live sexual urges, creative urges, insecurities, dislikes, self-loathing, and so on. Because these live in the subconscious, you may not even be fully aware of these motivations at any given moment. 

King contends that it’s not possible to permanently repress subconscious urges, and that eventually, these repressed feelings will motivate a person to behave in ways that might bring them harm—that might hurt a relationship, for example, or drive them to make poor financial decisions. For instance, a lawyer who’s long repressed a desire to write poetry might criticize the efforts of a friend who was recently published, or a person who secretly longs to be fabulously wealthy might impulsively buy a risky stock. 

King writes that when you can identify the subconscious motives of another person, you’ll know how to engage them more effectively. You might even be able to manipulate them if you know how to appeal to their secret desires and fears. You’re also less likely to be emotionally hurt by their bad behavior if you can recognize that it’s motivated by fear, anger, self-loathing, or other negative, repressed emotions

The Pleasure Principle

King writes that people are often motivated by the pleasure principle: the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It’s our most basic, primitive motivator, and it drives virtually everything we do. 

He notes a few rules governing the pleasure principle, two of which in particular can help you figure out what drives another person:

1. Our desire to avoid pain is stronger than our desire to find pleasure. This stems from our survival instinct: It’s usually more important that we avoid things that will hurt us than that we chase things that will make us more comfortable. King gives an example of stumbling upon a treasure chest that’s in the path of an oncoming train—you’re unlikely to jump toward the chest, since you’d rather avoid injury or death than gain riches. 

2. Emotions rule. Emotions usually trump logic when it comes to pleasure and pain. Thus, even if you rationally know that something will be good or bad for you, you might still indulge in an irrational action if the craving for it is strong enough. 

If you keep these instincts in mind, you can better understand why a person chooses to do something that may not at first seem logical. You can also better engage that person—you can appeal to their desires or allay their fears and can thus have a more productive interaction with them.

Our Hierarchy of Needs

King notes that the pleasure principle doesn’t guide every single one of our decisions—people are often able to resist cravings or to let their rational mind outweigh their emotions. This is because we have additional motivations driving our behavior beyond the mere pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of pain. Psychologists often frame these as a hierarchical set of needs, as outlined by professor Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies five levels of human needs:

  1. Physiological fulfillment: These are basic survival needs like food and shelter.
  2. Safety: These needs ensure that those of the first level will continue to be met. They include income and security.
  3. Love and belonging: These include relationships and community.
  4. Self-esteem: At this level, a person is concerned with status and respect from peers.
  5. Self-actualization: This level encompasses the desire to contribute something to the world beyond oneself—it includes morality, creativity, altruism, and the like. 

King writes that if you can identify which of these needs a person is responding to, you can more effectively work with them, help them, or get them to do what you want. For example, if you detect that your employee is upset, first identify which need she’s upset about. If she’s concerned she might lose her job, you’ll more effectively help her if you assure her that her job is safe, therefore addressing her level 2 concerns, rather than if you tell her how great it is to have friends (a level 3 concern).  

The Desire to Defend the Ego

Another common human motivator that King identifies is the desire to protect our egos: our sense of self. People want to see themselves positively—as competent, athletic, intelligent, and so on. When events threaten to destroy that self-image, people often behave in strange ways to protect and defend it. When you can recognize that someone is reacting based on this instinct, you can more effectively deal with them. 


King writes that another important factor that drives behavior is personality, which he defines as a consistent pattern of behavior and thinking over time. Psychologists generally measure personality as a collection of spectrums with character extremes on each end, such as extroversion versus introversion, or a measure of how neurotic you are (very versus not at all). 

To judge a person’s personality, think about how they usually react to events or triggers. When you can identify a person’s typical response, you can predict how they’ll likely react to any specific situation. This can help you better engage and interact with them. For example, you’ll be better able to manage conflict or disagreement: If you’re speaking to someone with a rational temperament, you might emphasize the logic of your argument, whereas if you’re speaking to someone with an idealist temperament, you might emphasize your argument’s humaneness.

King mentions another benefit to becoming adept in reading personalities: People who can read others well are often seen as more likable, intelligent, and even attractive. This is because if you can adjust your behavior according to the psychological or emotional needs of the other person, they’ll feel you empathize with them and understand their way of thinking. 

How to Read Nonverbal Cues

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the factors underpinning behavior, we’ll look at some specific ways a person’s behavior may indicate their inner mind. We’ll examine in particular how this happens through nonverbal communication—what we say using our bodies, not our words.

King writes that we communicate more information nonverbally than verbally, and these messages often more accurately reflect our thoughts and feelings than our words do. This is because nonverbal communication is how the primitive side of our brain expresses its emotions, and that side of our brain can’t lie—unlike the more developed, rational side. Thus, we may say one thing with the words our rational brain chooses, but we may say something different with our posture, facial expressions, and so on.

He therefore argues that to effectively read someone—to know when they’re lying, holding something back, or trying to hide an emotion—you must learn to read their nonverbal cues: their facial expressions, body language, appearance, and manner of speaking. 

Facial Expressions

King writes you can glean a lot of information from a person’s facial expressions—in particular, from their microexpressions: slight, brief facial expressions that a person makes as an automatic response to something. Because microexpressions are physiological, knee-jerk reactions to a stimulus, they’re hard to conceal or fake and are thus good indicators of a person’s true thoughts or feelings. 

King cautions that it can be difficult to read a person’s microexpressions—because they happen so quickly, you may have to watch someone more closely than is appropriate for a typical social situation. Further, he cautions against reading too much into any microexpressions. An expression of stress may indicate nervousness or discomfort, rather than deceit. 

Body Language

King writes that you can also assess how people are truly feeling—despite what they’re saying—by watching their body language: how they move their arms, legs, shoulders, and so on, and how they hold their posture. He notes some specific behaviors you can look out for that are often reliable clues to a person’s true feelings: 

Physical fight, flight, or freeze responses: Our responses to danger have remained the same over years of evolution, so we can use those tells to determine if someone feels like they’re in danger. Someone having a fight response might make threatening gestures, someone having a flight response might shift away from the threat (by leaning back from the person talking, for example), and someone having a freeze response might hold tight to something, like the edge of their desk. 

Self-soothing behaviors: King writes that self-soothing behaviors, like when someone rubs or touches their shoulders, legs, or fingers, indicate a person is nervous or stressed. The neck is a particularly vulnerable area of our bodies, and someone who feels threatened often covers or strokes it—for example, they might fidget with a necktie or necklace, or squeeze the top of their neck. They might also exhibit “ventilating” behaviors like moving their hair off their shoulders or moving their collar away from their neck, as if they’re trying to “cool off” stress. 

Deceitful behaviors: When people are lying, they may move nervously or fidget, indicating they feel a conflict between their internal reality and their external claims. They may lift their shoulders while saying they’re telling the truth, or they may scratch their nose, move their head to the side, or avoid eye contact. 

Confidence-projecting behaviors: People who are confident often make themselves appear big: They might make large gestures and leave their torsos (the most vulnerable part of the body) exposed to signal they’re not afraid of being attacked. A person feeling a lack of confidence will do the opposite—they’ll hunch their shoulders or sit back to be less visible. 

Mirroring behaviors: We mirror other people when we like and feel connected to them, and we avoid mirroring them when we dislike them. You can assess how someone feels about you by seeing if they’re adopting your posture, gestures, voice speed, or other quirks of behavior.  


King notes that people’s clothes are often good indicators of personality because people dress to purposefully communicate things about themselves. All you have to do, then, is take in the information they’re putting out there. 

Pay attention to how much effort someone has put into their appearance. If it looks like they haven’t tried hard, they may be depressed or have low self-esteem. Conversely, if they’ve put a lot of effort into their appearance, they may be confident or eager for you to think well of them. 

Note if someone’s clothes are unsuited to the current situation. This may indicate something about how the wearer perceives themselves and wants others to perceive them. For instance, if someone shows up to a dive bar wearing high-heels and cashmere, they might perceive themselves and want others to perceive them as extremely classy and sophisticated (and possibly above going to dive bars). 

Manner of Speaking 

King also writes that the way a person uses words can tell you a lot about their personality. For example, someone with a negative or angry outlook might use strong or harsh language to talk about relatively minor incidents (for instance, saying they “absolutely hate it” when the train is late). Or, someone who’s eager to be perceived as intelligent might use technical jargon when they don’t have to.

How to Detect Lies

King writes that one of the main reasons people want to learn to read others is to detect when they’re being lied to. This is an understandable concern—nobody wants to be tricked, and a person who can detect lies has an advantage when negotiating or otherwise interacting with people.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to detect lies. The nonverbal cues discussed above that we often hope will reveal deceit can be hard to read. Different people have different indicators because they react uniquely to the uncomfortable feeling of lying—one person might fidget while another frowns more than usual. 

Furthermore, liars are often aware of how nonverbal cues can be read and will often consciously avoid making mistakes that would give them away. If they know averting their eyes conveys deceit, for example, they’ll make sure not to do that.  

King writes that the best way to unearth a lie is not to look for individual, specific indicators, but instead, to have a conversation with the other person and then evaluate it holistically. Then: 

  • Try to make them mess up their story.
  • Look for unnatural behaviors.
  • Watch for emotions that don’t match the situation.  

Make Them Mess Up Their Story

King writes that the best way you can get another person to reveal faults in their story is to stress their brain. Lying is mentally taxing, and if a liar is forced to devote more mental resources to their lie than they had planned, they’re more likely to slip up. 

The best way to do this is to get them talking. The more they talk, the more opportunities they’ll have to say conflicting facts or to get details wrong. Start by asking open-ended questions to get the conversation flowing. Keep your tone casual so they don’t feel they’re being interrogated, which would cause them to clam up or get defensive. Your goal in the beginning of the conversation is to encourage them to reveal as much as possible.

King says that while getting them to talk, you should limit how much you contribute to the conversation. In particular, don’t reveal what you know about their lie. If they don’t know what you know, you’ll have an advantage, as they won’t be able to judge what information to hold back or adjust to fit the narrative. 

As the conversation progresses, switch to specific questions about details of their story. Your goal here is to throw them off-balance. King writes that liars usually have rehearsed their tale but are unprepared to answer questions about things they haven’t thought through yet, which gives you an opening to poke holes in their story. 

You can further tax their brains by repeating a part of their story slightly incorrectly, to see if they correct you—if you do this several times, they may not be able to keep track of their small details. 

Look for Unnatural Behavior

When looking for deceit, King advises you not to fixate on specific, isolated actions like fidgeting or avoiding eye contact. Individual indicators might mislead you because a person who feels nervous (as they might if they sense you’re questioning them) may do things that show discomfort but don’t necessarily mean deceit. 

Instead, watch for overall stiff or awkward behavior, especially at times when the conversation shifts tone or direction—and particularly around moments where the other person might need to make up details of a story. Do they start acting nervous at those points? Do they change from acting relaxed and friendly to suddenly being serious and blunt, or vice versa? 

Notice, too, if they give you evasive answers to your questions, like if they ask a question back to you or remark on how strange your question is.

Further, watch for whether they seem to be making up details as they go—King writes that people who are telling the truth are more likely to say, “I don’t know,” if they’re missing some details of their story, but liars are more likely to make up details to fill in the missing spots. 

Watch for Inappropriate Emotional Responses

King writes that telling a lie is an inherently emotional experience (unless the liar is a psychopath). People are usually uncomfortable with it—although he warns that some may get a thrill out of it. 

In either case, liars typically have trouble staying true to fake facts while also behaving toward those facts with appropriate emotions:

  • They might be overly matter-of-fact when telling a story that involves feelings like fear, surprise, or happiness. For example, a person might say she had spent the day visiting her elderly parents but not convey the angst and irritation she normally feels when visiting them.
  • Or, they might be unreasonably angry—liars often put on a show of anger (“What are you trying to say?”) to deflect an inquiry.
Read People Like a Book by Patrick King: Book Overview

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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