How to read people

Table of Contents

  1. Spotting Shame
  2. Blocking
  3. The Head Tilt
  4. Mouth Block
  5. Hands
  6. The Eyebrow Raise
  7. Facial Expressions
    1. Bonus Cue: Lie Detection

Do you know how to read people and decode body language? It is one of the most essential people skills.

When you think about reading people, you need to understand how to group each body language cue into one of two buckets: a micropositive or a micronegative.

A micropositive signals interest, curiosity, or engagement.

A micronegative signals nervousness, disinterest, or boredom.

In an interaction you want to see more micropositives than micronegatives. Every nonverbal cue you read is about deciding whether it is a micropositive or a micronegative. Here are 7 powerful body language cues you should know how to read in people:

Spotting Shame

There is a universal behavior humans do when they feel ashamed or embarrassed, and it’s super easy to spot. When people get embarrassed, they often touch the side of their forehead. (See video above for a demo.)

This is a micronegative. You see this all the time when people are embarrassed. Even animators recognize this as the universal shame gesture.

How to read people

Why does this happen? It is actually a starter gesture for wanting to hide or cover up or block out what is happening. If someone is really embarrassed, the forehead touch turns into a full-on eye block, where they go from the forehead touch to the eye cover.

How to read people

How to read people

Body Language Tip for You: Watch out for any time someone touches the side of their forehead or blocks their eyes. It likely means they are a little ashamed or embarrassed, and it might be time to back off.

Blocking

Whenever someone feels disengaged, uncomfortable, or closed off, their body shows it with what’s called blocking behavior. This is a micronegative.

Blocking is when we cover or block a part of our body as a barrier between us and someone else.

We do this subconsciously because we are trying to protect ourselves. Pay attention if someone suddenly crosses their arms, their legs, or frequently holds something—such as or a computer or a notepad or a pillow—in front of themself.

I found the most cringeworthy example of this in an old Blind Dating episode that went terribly wrong. I have to show you their first impression. Notice any blocking behavior in this video?

Did you see how she crossed her arms and legs right from the start? Doesn’t bode well for a good date…and it didn’t end well.

Body Language Tip for You: Watch for someone who does a lot of blocking. They might not be so open to you.

The Head Tilt

Do you hear that? It is a natural human behavior to tilt our head and expose our ear when we want to hear something better. This one is a micropositive!

If someone’s head tilts while the person is speaking with you, it is a great sign. It means they are listening, they are engaged, and they want to hear more. You know who is great at this? The ultimate great listener, Oprah Winfrey. I think one of the ways Oprah gets people to open up to her is with her amazing nonverbal. Let’s watch this clip and see how she listens with her body.

Did you see her slight head tilts and the slight nods? The head tilt plus nod is one of the most powerful nonverbal micropositives to show someone you really are listening.

Body Language Tip for You: If someone tilts and nods while you speak — keep them around. They like listening to you. Want to show someone you are listening? Give them the head tilt and nod.

Mouth Block

Have you ever seen a little kid tell a lie?

How to read people

They frequently tell their lie, and then cover their own mouth. Subconsciously, whenever we are trying to keep something in, we cover our own mouth. As if to say to our brain, “No, don’t say it!”

The mouth cover is also a common thing to do when we are feeling embarrassed. Lady Gaga does it.

How to read people

Howie Mandel does it.

How to read people

Even Sharon Osbourne does it.

How to read people

Body Language Tip for You: Watch for a sudden mouth cover. They might be trying to keep something from you.

Hands

Hands tell us so much about what a person is thinking. In fact, I could show you all of these clips on silent, and you know what the person is saying, without even hearing the corresponding words. Such as:

What you talking about?

How to read people

How to read people

Look at my face! Look at my face!

How to read people

We always watch someone’s hands as they are talking. You should be using more hand gestures. They are a great micropositive because they help keep people engaged.

Body Language Tip for You: Learn all 20 hand gestures you should be using to get your message across. And watch this tutorial on hand gestures:

The Eyebrow Raise

When talking about body language, we hear a lot about eye contact — and that’s important. But you know what often is forgotten? The eyebrows. Eyebrows are a great little nonverbal secret. Here’s what you want to look out for, the eyebrow raise. This is a great micropositive!

How to read people

Whenever someone is interested, engaged, or curious, they raise their eyebrows. It’s almost as if we want our eyebrows to get out of the way so we can see something more clearly.

Body Language Tip for You: Raise your eyebrows when you are interested, and don’t miss an eyebrow raise that is sent to you!

Facial Expressions

The last cue is the most important: It’s knowing how to decode the face. Facial expressions can be both micropositives and micronegatives, depending on which one you see.

Reading facial expressions is a game changer for accurately reading people. Dr. Paul Ekman discovered 7 universal microexpressions. The ones you want to look out for are:

  • Fear
  • Happiness
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust

Bonus Cue: Lie Detection

Lie detection is an incredibly powerful people skill to add to your arsenal. We have a 5 step method for spotting lies and bringing more truth into your relationships. In a ten-minute conversation, you are likely to be lied to two to three times. You might not even realize how often the people in your life are being deceitful. 91% of people lie regularly at home and at work. Check out our lie detection guide:

The art of reading people to ignite your super-senses.

Posted February 26, 2014 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

As a psychiatrist, my job is to read people, not just what they say, but who they are. Interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues, I want to see past their masks into the real person. Logic alone won’t tell you the whole story about anybody. You must surrender to other vital forms of information so that you can learn to read the important non-verbal intuitive cues that people give off. To do this, you must also be willing to surrender any preconceptions, or emotional baggage such as old resentments or ego clashes, that stop you from seeing someone clearly. The key is to remain objective and receive information neutrally without distorting it.

Whether you’re reading your boss, co-worker, or partner to understand people accurately you must surrender biases, some walls must come down. As brilliant as the intellect is, you have to be willing to let go of old, limiting ideas. People who read others well are trained to read the invisible. They’ve learned to utilize what I call their “super-senses” to look further than where you usually put your attention to access life-changing intuitive insights. I invite you to explore some of these different methods of reading people from my book, The Ecstasy of Surrender. They all require surrendering pure logic in favor of also receiving alternative, non-linear forms of input.

Three Techniques in the Art of Reading People

The First Technique: Observe Body Language Cues

Research has shown that words account for only 7 percent of how we communicate whereas our body language (55 percent) and voice tone (30 percent) represent the rest. Here, the surrender to focus on is letting go of trying too hard to read body language cues. Don’t get overly intense or analytical. Stay relaxed and fluid. Be comfortable, sit back, and simply observe.

1. Pay Attention to Appearance
When reading others notice: Are they wearing a power suit and well-shined shoes, dressed for success, indicating ambition? Jeans and a T-shirt, indicating comfort with being casual? A tight top with cleavage, a seductive choice? A pendant such as a cross or Buddha indicating spiritual values?

2. Notice Posture
When reading people’s posture, ask yourself: Do they hold their head high, confident? Or do they walk indecisively or cower, a sign of low self-esteem? Do they swagger with a puffed-out chest, a sign of a big ego?

3. Watch for Physical Movements

  • Leaning and distance—Observe where people lean. Generally, we lean toward those we like and away from those we don’t.
  • Crossed arms and legs—This pose suggests defensiveness, anger, or self-protection. When people cross their legs they tend to point the toes of the top leg towards the person they are most at ease with.
  • Hiding one’s hands—When people place their hands in their laps, pockets, or put them behind their back it suggests that they are hiding something.
  • Lip biting or cuticle picking—When people bite or lick their lips or pick their cuticles they are trying to soothe themselves under pressure or in an awkward situation.

4. Interpret Facial Expression
Emotions can become etched on our faces. Deep frown lines suggest worry or over-thinking. Crow’s feet are the smile lines of joy. Pursed lips signal anger, contempt, or bitterness. A clenched jaw and teeth grinding are signs of tension.

The Second Technique: Listen to Your Intuition

You can tune into someone beyond their body language and words. Intuition is what your gut feels, not what your head says. It’s nonverbal information you perceive via images and ah-has, rather than logic. If you want to understand someone, what counts the most is who the person is, not their outer trappings. Intuition lets you see further than the obvious to reveal a richer story.

Checklist of Intuitive Cues

Listen to what your gut says, especially during first meetings, a visceral reaction that occurs before you have a chance to think. It relays whether you’re at ease or not. Gut feelings occur quickly, a primal response. They’re your internal truth meter, relaying if you can trust people.

2. Feel the goosebumps

Goosebumps are marvelous intuitive tingles that convey that we resonate with people who move or inspire us or are saying something that strikes a chord. Goosebumps also happen when you experience deja-vu, a recognition that you’ve known someone before, though you’ve actually never met.

3. Pay attention to flashes of insight

In conversations, you may get an “ah-ha” about people who come in a flash. Stay alert. Otherwise, you might miss it. We tend to go onto the next thought so rapidly these critical insights are lost.

4. Watch for intuitive empathy

Sometimes you can feel people’s physical symptoms and emotions in your body which is an intense form of empathy. So, when reading people, notice: “Does my back hurt when it didn’t before? Am I depressed or upset after an uneventful meeting?” To determine if this is empathy, get feedback.

The Third Technique: Sense Emotional Energy

Emotions are a stunning expression of our energy, the “vibe” we give off. We register these with intuition. Some people feel good to be around; they improve your mood and vitality. Others are draining; you instinctively want to get away. This “subtle energy” can be felt inches or feet from the body, though it’s invisible. In Chinese medicine, it’s called chi, a vitality that’s essential to health.

Strategies to Read Emotional Energy

1. Sense People’s Presence

This is the overall energy we emit, not necessarily congruent with words or behavior. It’s the emotional atmosphere surrounding us like a rain cloud or the sun. As you read people notice: Do they have a friendly presence that attracts you? Or are you getting the willies, making you back off?

2. Watch People’s Eyes

Our eyes transmit powerful energy. Just as the brain has an electromagnetic signal extending beyond the body, studies indicate that the eyes project this too. Take time to observe people’s eyes. Are they caring? Sexy? Tranquil? Mean? Angry? Also determine: Is there someone at home in their eyes, indicating a capacity for intimacy? Or do they seem to be guarded or hiding?

3. Notice the Feel of a Handshake, Hug, and Touch

We share emotional energy through physical contact much like an electrical current. Ask yourself, Does a handshake or hug feel warm, comfortable, confident? Or is it off-putting so you want to withdraw? Are people’s hands clammy, signaling anxiety. Or limp, suggesting being non-committal and timid?

4. Listen for Tone of Voice and Laugh

The tone and volume of our voice can tell much about our emotions. Sound frequencies create vibrations. When reading people, notice how their tone of voice affects you. Ask yourself: Does their tone feel soothing? Or is it abrasive, snippy, or whiny?

How to read people

The ability to read others will greatly affect how you deal with them. When you understand how another person is feeling, you can adapt your message and communication style to make sure it is received in the best way possible.

But what should you be listening for? And what other signs can tip you off to what someone is thinking or feeling?

If you follow my column, you’re familiar with LaRae Quy. LaRae, who spent 23 years as a counterintelligence agent for the FBI, now spends her time writing, speaking, and teaching others tips that she learned while working for the Bureau. Those tips provide valuable lessons for entrepreneurs, business owners, and everyone else. (You can read more of LaRae’s advice in my previous articles “An FBI Agent’s 5 Steps to Developing Mental Toughness” and “An FBI Agent’s 8 Ways to Spot a Liar.” Also make sure to check out her website.)

As LaRae put it well:

“You don’t need to be a top-notch interrogator to figure out what is going on in someone’s head. The signals are always there–all you need to do is know what to look for.”

Here are her 9 tips for reading others:

1. Create a baseline

People have different quirks and patterns of behavior. For example, they might clear their throat, look at the floor while talking, cross their arms, scratch their head, stroke their neck, squint, pout, or jiggle their feet frequently. Initially, we may not even notice when others do these things. If we do, we don’t give it much attention.

People display these behaviors for different reasons. They could simply be mannerisms. Sometimes, however, these same actions could be indicative of deception, anger, or nervousness.

Creating a mental baseline of others’ normal behavior will help you .

2. Look for deviations

Pay attention to inconsistencies between the baseline you’ve created and the person’s words and gestures.

For example: You’ve noticed that an important supplier of yours has the habit of clearing his throat repeatedly when nervous. As he introduces some relatively small changes to your business arrangement, he starts to do this. Is there more here than meets the eye?

You might decide to probe further, asking a few more questions than you would have normally.

3. Notice clusters of gestures

No lone gesture or word necessarily means anything, but when several behavioral aberrations are clumped together, take notice.

For example, not only does your supplier keep clearing his throat, but he also does that head scratching thing. And he keeps shuffling his feet.

Proceed with caution.

4. Compare and contrast

OK, so you’ve noticed that someone is acting a little different than normal. Move your observation up a notch to see if and when that person repeats the same behavior with others in your group.

Continue to observe the person as he or she interacts with others in the room. Does the person’s expression change? How about his or her posture and body language?

5. Look into the mirror

Mirror neurons are built-in monitors in our brain that reflect other people’s state of mind. We are wired to read one another’s body language. A smile activates the smile muscles in our own faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles.

When we see someone we like, our eyebrows arch, facial muscles relax, head tilts, and blood flows to our lips making them full.

If your partner doesn’t reciprocate that behavior, this person could be sending you a clear message: He or she doesn’t like you or aren’t happy with something you’ve done.

6. Identify the strong voice

The most powerful person is not always the one sitting at the head of the table.

Confident people have strong voices. Around a conference room table, the most confident person is very likely to be the most powerful one: expansive posture, strong voice, and a big smile. (Don’t confuse a loud voice with a strong one.)

If you’re pitching an idea to a group, it’s easy to pay attention to the leader of the team. But that leader may have a weak personality. In reality, he or she depends heavily on others to make decisions, and is easily influenced by them.

Identify the strong voice, and your chances for success increase dramatically.

7. Observe how they walk

Oftentimes, people who shuffle along, lack a flowing motion in their movements, or keep their head down lack self-confidence.

If you notice these traits in a member of your team, you might make an extra effort to offer commendation, in an attempt to help build the person’s confidence. Or you may need to ask him or her more direct questions during a meeting, in order to pull those great ideas out into the open.

8. Pinpoint action words

As an FBI agent, I found words were the closest way for me to get into another person’s head. Words represent thoughts, so identify the word that is freighted with meaning.

For example, if your boss says she’s “decided to go with brand X,” the action word is decided. This single word indicates that most likely your boss 1) is not impulsive, 2) weighed several options, and 3) thinks things through.

Action words offer insights into the way a person thinks.

9. Look for personality clues

Each of us has a unique personality, but there are basic clarifications that can help you relate to another person so you can read him or her accurately.

  • Does someone exhibit more introverted or extroverted behavior?
  • Does he or she seem driven by relationships or significance?
  • How does the person handle risk and uncertainty?
  • What feeds his or her ego?
  • What are the person’s behaviors when stressed?
  • What are the person’s behaviors when relaxed?

Putting it all together

As always, LaRae’s tips get me thinking. As she acknowledges, it takes time to learn how to read people accurately. And of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But keeping these principles in mind as you build your powers of observation will greatly enhance your ability to read others, understand their thinking, and communicate effectively.

“Empathy.” “People skills.” “Catching vibes.” Social intelligence, or the ability to recognize other people’s emotions—and to use this intel to navigate relationships—has been called many things. But even if you think that you are fairly good at dealing with people, social competence is something you can—and should—continue to cultivate throughout your life. Here’s how to do it.

The Art of Reading People

Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. But for most of us, it’s something that’s developed—or stunted—over time. If your parents instructed you not to cry when you were a child or were prone to saying “It’s fine” when things were anything but, you might be less perceptive than you would have been had your family hashed out how they were feeling over the dinner table, says David Caruso, Ph.D., a psychologist and a cofounder of EI Skills Group, a Connecticut-based company that trains people in emotional intelligence. (There are some exceptions: People on the autism spectrum, for example, may have a difficult time detecting emotional nuances.) Your day-to-day activities also affect your level of social intelligence. The more time you spend glued to a screen, the less likely you are to decipher other people’s social cues accurately or even to pick up on them in the first place. Last year, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that sixth graders who went to an outdoor camp and gave up smartphones, iPads, and television cold turkey for just five days were substantially better at reading human emotions than were sixth graders from the same school who didn’t go to the camp and give up the digital devices.

And now, for the benefits. For one, social intelligence plays a pivotal role in your health. Numerous studies have shown that people who are socially connected are happier, have lower blood pressure, are less susceptible to colds, and even outlive their more isolated peers. Social know-how may just be the secret ingredient to career success, too. According to a 2014 Journal of Organizational Behavior study, employees who are good at reading emotions and use that in addition to others skills, such as networking, tend to have higher incomes. “Emotionally intelligent individuals are also more likely to become leaders of a team and demonstrate greater leadership effectiveness,” says study coauthor Yongmei Liu, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Illinois State University College of Business.

Social-intelligence skills can be used for in-person interactions (winning over the grumpy teller at your bank, say) and virtual ones (wording an e-mail to a touchy coworker, for example). Here are the emotional detective skills that can make all encounters more informative and successful.

In Person

Be a blank slate.
Before attempting to get a read on someone, you must have an open mind yourself. “Your own emotions and your previous experiences with another person can color your impressions, and that may lead you to misread the situation,” says Blanca Cobb, the founder of Truth Blazer, a Greensboro, North Carolina–based firm that consults on body language. Try to approach every interaction, no matter what your shared history, objectively, says Cobb.

Chat about the weather.
When it comes to social intelligence, small talk serves a big purpose: With both strangers and those you’ve known for years, seemingly pointless chitchat gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the other person’s baseline—that is, his or her neutral disposition—so you can accurately spot behavior that’s out of the ordinary. Does your conversation partner twirl her hair when she’s relaxed? Talk with her hands? Avoid consistent eye contact? “When you switch the topic and notice a blip in the baseline, that’s when you go, Aha!” says Cobb. Vocal variances, like a change in pitch, pace, or even hesitation, can be a tip-off that a person’s emotions have shifted.

Focus on the big picture.
A colleague who crosses her arms across her chest might be defensive—or she might be trying to stay warm. Rather than zeroing in on individual gestures, do a comprehensive scan of the other person’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and use of words, and form a hypothesis only if most signs point to the same thing.

On a Screen

Skew positive.
A 2008 paper from Syracuse University said that e-mails meant to be neutral may be interpreted as negative, while positive messages can be read as neutral. Blame it on the ambiguity of the written language. “Because texts, social-media messages, and e-mail aren’t softened up with body language, words often come across extra direct and harsh,” says David B. Givens, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, in Spokane, Washington. To counteract this over-reading, when someone types, “Yeah, sure,” try to assume that it’s sincere rather than brimming with sarcasm. Or, better yet, be direct and ask for clarification.

Look for a personal tone.
According to a 2003 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when a person is being deceptive, he is less likely to “own” his story. He uses fewer first-person pronouns (I, me, mine) and exclusive words (but, without, except) and more negations (no, never, none) compared with people who are telling the truth. For instance, a trustworthy e-mail might say, “I did all of my math homework except for the last set of questions,” whereas a lie is more likely to be phrased, “Homework’s done.”

The signals are always there, but most people don’t even realize it. You have to know what to look for and understand what certain gestures mean in order to solve the puzzle. Keep in mind, there’s no single surefire way to tell what someone is thinking — even the greatest mind-wizards in the world are only right 80% of the time.

We collected a variety of insights from Psychology Today that can help you learn to read people’s verbal and nonverbal hints.

Start by getting a baseline reading so that you can distinguish personal quirks from real tells. A common way to get this reading is by simply observing a person’s habits over time

A seemingly innocent question such as “How are you doing today?” by a salesperson may be an attempt to gauge your baseline, setting up for inquiries that are more probing

Look for inconsistencies between the baseline and the person’s gestures and words

When you have a chance to ask questions be pointed, not vague

Ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro provided several tips on how to read people in a questioning environment in an article in Psychology Today.

Vague, open-ended questions don’t work, because if the person rambles it becomes difficult to detect any deception. Instead, ask question that require a straight answer.

And don’t be intrusive. After asking a question, sit back and observe without interrupting.

Word choice provides insight into what people really mean

Here’s an example of a word clue that retired FBI special agent Dr. John R. Schafer identified in his column:

“I won another award”

The Word Clue “another” conveys the notion that the speaker won one or more previous awards. This person wanted to ensure that other people know that he or she won at least one other award, thus bolstering his or her self-image. This person may need the adulation of others to reinforce his or her self-esteem. Observers could exploit this vulnerability by using flattery and other ego-enhancing comments.

STASH ALL 7 IDEAS

Here’s what you’re doing wrong

But most of what you believe about body language and analyzing others is based on myth or guesswork, not real research.

So how can you learn how to read people the right way? Let’s get answers from experts and studies.

But first we need to understand all the mistakes you’re making.

In The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help-or Hurt-How You Lead the author points out a number of common errors people make in reading people:

Good News: your first impressions are usually pretty accurate .

Bad News: whether they are wrong or right, first impressions affect us in a big way and we are slow to change them .

Sam Gosling is about as close to Sherlock Holmes as you can get. He’s a personality psychologist at the University of Texas and author of the book Snoop . Here’s Sam:

First impressions are often quite helpful but you have to be willing to update them quite rapidly. That’s what’s very hard to do.

A class ring. T-shirts with slogans. Tattoos. Pay attention to them because they’re usually accurate signs. Here’s Sam :

Now this is all pretty personal. So what about if you’re trying to read someone in a professional context?

Want to know if someone is good at their job? Then watch them do it for thirty seconds – or even just six seconds . Your guess about their competence is more likely to be right than wrong:

Want to know if someone’s smart? Research says this is hard to tell from mere appearance when evaluating adults. But there’s a trick that can help. Are they funny? Because funny people are smart :

(To learn more about how to flirt scientifically, click here .)

Alright, we’ve learned a lot about how to read people. Let’s round it up and learn the real way you can project a better image so when people read you, you come off looking great.

Here’s how to read people 101:

  • Don’t make the usual mistakes: Take context, clusters, baseline, and biases into consideration.
  • First impressions are often accurate: With a number of traits you can trust your gut. But know which ones.
  • Trust mimicry and emotional expression: But they have to be sustained and consistent.
  • Awful people have tells: Pay attention to notice them. And look for narcissists in flashy clothing.
  • Deepening voice and touching says “flirting”: True for both men and women.

“Empathy.” “People skills.” “Catching vibes.” Social intelligence, or the ability to recognize other people’s emotions—and to use this intel to navigate relationships—has been called many things. But even if you think that you are fairly good at dealing with people, social competence is something you can—and should—continue to cultivate throughout your life. Here’s how to do it.

The Art of Reading People

Certain individuals seem to be born with social intelligence. But for most of us, it’s something that’s developed—or stunted—over time. If your parents instructed you not to cry when you were a child or were prone to saying “It’s fine” when things were anything but, you might be less perceptive than you would have been had your family hashed out how they were feeling over the dinner table, says David Caruso, Ph.D., a psychologist and a cofounder of EI Skills Group, a Connecticut-based company that trains people in emotional intelligence. (There are some exceptions: People on the autism spectrum, for example, may have a difficult time detecting emotional nuances.) Your day-to-day activities also affect your level of social intelligence. The more time you spend glued to a screen, the less likely you are to decipher other people’s social cues accurately or even to pick up on them in the first place. Last year, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that sixth graders who went to an outdoor camp and gave up smartphones, iPads, and television cold turkey for just five days were substantially better at reading human emotions than were sixth graders from the same school who didn’t go to the camp and give up the digital devices.

And now, for the benefits. For one, social intelligence plays a pivotal role in your health. Numerous studies have shown that people who are socially connected are happier, have lower blood pressure, are less susceptible to colds, and even outlive their more isolated peers. Social know-how may just be the secret ingredient to career success, too. According to a 2014 Journal of Organizational Behavior study, employees who are good at reading emotions and use that in addition to others skills, such as networking, tend to have higher incomes. “Emotionally intelligent individuals are also more likely to become leaders of a team and demonstrate greater leadership effectiveness,” says study coauthor Yongmei Liu, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Illinois State University College of Business.

Social-intelligence skills can be used for in-person interactions (winning over the grumpy teller at your bank, say) and virtual ones (wording an e-mail to a touchy coworker, for example). Here are the emotional detective skills that can make all encounters more informative and successful.

In Person

Be a blank slate.
Before attempting to get a read on someone, you must have an open mind yourself. “Your own emotions and your previous experiences with another person can color your impressions, and that may lead you to misread the situation,” says Blanca Cobb, the founder of Truth Blazer, a Greensboro, North Carolina–based firm that consults on body language. Try to approach every interaction, no matter what your shared history, objectively, says Cobb.

Chat about the weather.
When it comes to social intelligence, small talk serves a big purpose: With both strangers and those you’ve known for years, seemingly pointless chitchat gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the other person’s baseline—that is, his or her neutral disposition—so you can accurately spot behavior that’s out of the ordinary. Does your conversation partner twirl her hair when she’s relaxed? Talk with her hands? Avoid consistent eye contact? “When you switch the topic and notice a blip in the baseline, that’s when you go, Aha!” says Cobb. Vocal variances, like a change in pitch, pace, or even hesitation, can be a tip-off that a person’s emotions have shifted.

Focus on the big picture.
A colleague who crosses her arms across her chest might be defensive—or she might be trying to stay warm. Rather than zeroing in on individual gestures, do a comprehensive scan of the other person’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and use of words, and form a hypothesis only if most signs point to the same thing.

On a Screen

Skew positive.
A 2008 paper from Syracuse University said that e-mails meant to be neutral may be interpreted as negative, while positive messages can be read as neutral. Blame it on the ambiguity of the written language. “Because texts, social-media messages, and e-mail aren’t softened up with body language, words often come across extra direct and harsh,” says David B. Givens, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, in Spokane, Washington. To counteract this over-reading, when someone types, “Yeah, sure,” try to assume that it’s sincere rather than brimming with sarcasm. Or, better yet, be direct and ask for clarification.

Look for a personal tone.
According to a 2003 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, when a person is being deceptive, he is less likely to “own” his story. He uses fewer first-person pronouns (I, me, mine) and exclusive words (but, without, except) and more negations (no, never, none) compared with people who are telling the truth. For instance, a trustworthy e-mail might say, “I did all of my math homework except for the last set of questions,” whereas a lie is more likely to be phrased, “Homework’s done.”

How to read people

The ability to “read” people is by far one of your most valuable skills in business. The people you interact with each day send you signals, and if you learn what to look and listen for, each person will tell you exactly how to effectively work with him.

Everyone experiences the same basic human needs—results, recognition, regimentation and relationships—with some holding more dominance than others. Depending on the weight placed on each need, people differ in personality.

So what is there to read?

Dozens of signals—verbal, vocal and visuals—tell you when to speed up or slow down, when to focus on the details or when to work on building the relationship. But, because people are different, the same technique won’t always work.

Human Behavior Has Two Dimensions

When people act and react—with verbal, vocal and visual actions—in social situations, they exhibit clues to their behavioral style. Identifying that is possible by classifying a person’s behavior on two dimensions: openness and directness.

Open vs. Guarded: Openness is the readiness and willingness with which a person outwardly shows emotions or feelings and develops interpersonal relationships.

Others commonly describe open people as being relaxed, warm, responsive, informal and personable. They tend to be relationship-oriented, and in conversations with others, they share personal feelings and tell stories and anecdotes. They tend to be flexible about time and base their decisions more on intuition and opinion than on hard facts and data. They also are likely to behave dramatically and to give you immediate nonverbal feedback in conversation.

Guarded individuals, on the other hand, commonly are seen as formal and proper. They tend to be more aloof in their interpersonal relationships. They are more likely to follow the letter of the law and try to base their decisions on cold, hard facts. Guarded people are usually very task-oriented and disciplined about time. As opposed to open people, they hide their personal feelings in the presence of others.

Direct vs. Indirect: Now consider the second dimension—directness. This refers to the amount of control and forcefulness that a person attempts to exercise over situations or other people.

Direct people tend to “come on strong,” take the social initiative and create a powerful first impression. They are fast-paced people, making swift decisions and taking risks. They easily become impatient with others who cannot keep up with their fast pace. They are active people who do a lot of talking and appear confident and dominant. Direct people express their opinions readily and make emphatic statements.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, indirect people give the impression of being quiet and reserved. They seem to be supportive and easy-going, and they tend to be security-conscious—moving slowly, meditating on their decisions and avoiding risks. They ask questions and listen more than they talk. They reserve their opinions and make tentative statements when they must take a stand.

When directness is combined with openness, it forms four different, recognizable and habitual behavioral styles: the socializer, the director, the thinker and the relater.

Socializer: Open and Direct

The socializer exhibits such characteristics as animation, intuitiveness and liveliness. He is an idea person—a dreamer—but can be viewed as manipulative, impetuous and excitable when displaying behavior inappropriate to a particular situation.

The socializer is a fast-paced person with spontaneous actions and decisions. He is not concerned about facts and details, and tries to avoid them as much as possible. This may prompt him at times to exaggerate and generalize facts and figures. He thrives on involvement with people and usually works quickly and enthusiastically with others.

The socializer always seems to be chasing dreams, but he has the uncanny ability to catch others up in his dreams because of his good persuasive skills. He always seems to be seeking approval and pats on the back for his accomplishments and achievements. The socializer is a very creative person who has that dynamic ability to think quickly on his feet.

Director: Direct and Guarded

The director exhibits firmness in his relationships with others, is oriented toward productivity and goals and is concerned with bottom-line results. Closely allied to these positive traits, however, are the negative ones of stubbornness, impatience, toughness and even domineeringness.

A director tends to take control of other people and situations and is decisive in both his actions and decisions. He likes to move at an extremely fast pace and is very impatient with delays. When other people can’t keep up with his speed, he views them as incompetent. The director’s motto: “I want it done right, and l want it done now.”

The director is typically a high achiever who exhibits very good administrative skills. He likes to do many things at the same time. He keeps adding on until the pressure builds to such a point that he turns his back and lets everything drop. Then he turns right around and starts the whole process over again.

Thinker: Indirect and Guarded

The thinker is a persistent, systematic problem-solver. But he also can be seen as aloof, picky and critical. A thinker is very security-conscious and has a strong need to be right. This leads him to an over-reliance on data collection. In his quest for data he tends to ask many questions about specific details.

The thinker works slowly and precisely by himself and prefers an intellectual work environment that is organized and structured. He tends to be skeptical and likes to see things in writing.

Although he is a great problem-solver, the thinker is a poor decision-maker; he may keep collecting data even beyond the time when a decision is due.

Relater: Open and Indirect

The relater is unassertive, warm, supportive and reliable. However, the relater sometimes is seen by others as compliant, soft-hearted and acquiescent. The relater seeks security and belongingness and, like the thinker, is slow at taking action and making decisions. This procrastination stems from his desire to avoid risky and unknown situations. Before he takes action or makes a decision, he has to know how other people feel about it.

The relater is the most people-oriented of all four styles. Having close, friendly, personal and first-name relationships with others is one of the most important objectives of the relater’s style.

The relater dislikes interpersonal conflicts so much that he sometimes says what he thinks other people want to hear rather than what is really on his mind. The relater has tremendous counseling skills and is extremely supportive of other people. He also is an incredibly active listener. Because a relater listens so well to other people, when it comes his turn to talk, people usually listen. This gives him an excellent ability to gain support from others.

Learning to identify these four distinct personality types by their behavior takes time, but evaluating people’s behavior within this framework can help you better understand others and yourself.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2014 and has been updated.
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