Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior-Anytime, Anyplace


America's top jury consultant, Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, can literally read a person like a book. By decoding the hidden messages in appearance, tone of voice, facial expression, and personal habit, she has accurately predicted the behavior of jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and judges in some of the most celebrated trials of the past two decades. Now in this phenomenal new book, she applies the secrets of her extraordinary success to the everyday situations we all face at work, at home, ...
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America's top jury consultant, Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, can literally read a person like a book. By decoding the hidden messages in appearance, tone of voice, facial expression, and personal habit, she has accurately predicted the behavior of jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and judges in some of the most celebrated trials of the past two decades. Now in this phenomenal new book, she applies the secrets of her extraordinary success to the everyday situations we all face at work, at home, and in relationships.

How can you "hear between the lines" to detect a lie? When is intuition the best guide to making important decisions? What are the tell-tale signs of romantic attraction? How do other people "read" us? The answers lie closer than we might think. Hair style, clothing, grooming, hand gestures, the neatness of office or living room, the steadiness of the gaze, behavior around subordinates: all of these provide critical clues to a person's integrity, work habits, and sexual interests. Through vivid anecdotes and proven techniques, Dimitrius teaches us how to interpret these signs with accuracy and precision.

Whether your focus is friendship or marriage, career or family, romance or professional success, Reading People  gives you the skills you need to make sound, swift decisions and reap the benefits from a lifetime of razor-sharp insight.  

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345425874
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 295
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Ph.D., has consulted in over six hundred jury trials, including the Rodney King, Reginald Denny, John DuPont, McMartin Preschool, and O. J. Simpson cases. She has appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, the Today show, Larry King Live, Face the Nation, and 60 Minutes, and she has consulted with many Fortune 100 companies.

Mark Mazzarella has been a practicing trial lawyer in San Diego for twenty years. He is a past chairman of the twelve-thousand-member litigation section of the California State Bar, and he writes and lectures extensively.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading People

How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior-Anytime, Anyplace
By Jo-Ellan Dimitrius

Ballantine Books

Copyright © 1999 Jo-Ellan Dimitrius
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345425871

Chapter One

Reading Readiness:
Preparing for the Challenge
of Reading People

"I can't believe I didn't see the signs. They were right
there in front of me! How could I have been so blind?"

We've all said something very much like this, probably more times than we care to admit. After we've misjudged our boss's intentions, a friend's loyalty, or a baby-sitter's common sense, we carefully replay the past--and usually see the mistakes we made with 20/20 hindsight. Why, then, after living and reliving our mistakes, don't we learn more from them? If reading people were like driving a car or hitting a tennis ball, we'd be able to recognize our weak points and improve our performance with every try. That rarely happens with relationships. Instead, we interact with our friends, colleagues, and spouses in the same old ways, doggedly hoping for the best.

In theory, thanks to the people-reading skills I acquired over the years, it should have been easy for me to make better decisions in my personal life--whom to let into it and what to expect from them once I did. Yet for many years I failed to apply my courtroom abilities to my off-duty life. Perhaps I had to reach a saturation point of pain and disappointment in some of my personal relationships before I was willing to analyze my mistakes and put my professional experience to work for me.

When I finally resolved to bring that focus and clarity to my personal life, it made sense to start by comparing the courthouse with the world outside. I was determined to figure out what I was doing in the courtroom that enabled me to read people in that setting with such consistent accuracy. I thought I should be able to distill that information into a set of people-reading basics that would work anywhere.

When I told my colleagues about the great difference between my people-reading successes on and off the job, I found I wasn't alone. Many of the best attorneys I knew confessed that, while they enjoyed great success reading people in court, the rest of the time they didn't do much better than anyone else. Why?

The conclusions I eventually reached led me to the keys of "reading readiness"--the foundation of understanding people and predicting their behavior. The first thing I discovered was that attitude is critical. In a courtroom, I was ready to focus fully on the people I encountered, to listen to them closely, to observe the way they looked and acted, and to carefully think about what I was hearing and seeing. I had a very different attitude in my private life; I rarely did any of those things. The fact is, you have to be ready to read people, or all the clues in the world won't do you any good.

In this chapter, you'll learn how to bring a courtroom state of mind--clear-eyed, observant, careful, and objective--into the emotional, subjective drama that is everyday life. Master the following skills, and you'll be ready to read people.

1. Spend more time with people. That's the best way to learn to understand them.

2. Stop, look, and listen. There's no substitute for patience and attentiveness.

3. Learn to reveal something of yourself. To get others to open up, you must first open up to them.

4. Know what you're looking for. Unless you know what you want in another person, there's a good chance you'll be disappointed.

5. Train yourself to be objective. Objectivity is essential to reading people, but it's the hardest of these seven skills for most of us to master.

6. Start from scratch, without biases and prejudices.

7. Make a decision, then act on it.


Unless you've been stranded on a desert island for the past fifty years, you've noticed that the world has changed. Understanding people has always been one of life's biggest challenges, but the social changes and technological explosion of recent decades have made it even more difficult. Today, many of us don't enjoy close bonds or daily contact even with the most important people in our lives. We're out of touch and out of practice.

Unless you practice the skills you'll learn in this book, you won't retain them. But that's difficult today, because we live in a global society. We're in contact with people across town, across the country, or even on the other side of the world. But our contact usually isn't personal. The same technological advances that allow us such extraordinary access to others have exacted a toll--they have made face-to-face conversation relatively rare. Why meet with a client in person if you can phone him? Why have an actual conversation with Mom if you can leave a message on her answering machine? Why phone a friend if you can send an e-mail or a fax? As long as the message gets through, what's the difference? Most of us have even phoned someone, hoping to leave a message, only to be disappointed when she's actually there to answer the call. Some of us even bow out altogether, relying on our assistants, kids, spouses, or friends to do our communicating for us. Or we settle into cyberspace, meeting, doing business, sometimes even becoming engaged--all on the basis of the sterile, electronically generated word, without the benefit of seeing someone or even talking to him.

All forms of communication are not equal. If I want to ask a favor of my colleague Alan, I have several choices. I can walk down the hall and speak with him in person; in that case, I'll be able to gauge his response accurately. Maybe he'll gladly say yes. Then again, maybe he'll say yes while wincing. Or perhaps he'll say no, but will clearly show his reservations. There's an almost infinite number of reactions I might see if I'm there in the room with him. Now, if I phone Alan instead, I'll be able to sense some of his feelings from his voice--but I may miss the more subtle undertones and I won't get any visual cues. If we e-mail each other, effectively squelching almost all human contact, I'll get just the facts. And what if I simply send someone else to ask?

Making matters worse, most of us purposely avoid meaningful conversation with all but our closest friends and family. When we do get together, we may be more comfortable saying what is expected or "politically correct" than what we really believe. Self-revelation comes hard to most people; those who confess their innermost secrets on afternoon talk shows are the exception, not the rule.

The reasons we don't like to expose ourselves could fill a book, but undoubtedly the edgy, distrustful tenor of urban life is among them. From childhood on, those of us who live in or near big cities are urged to be wary of strangers; the concept is reinforced nightly on the local news. We urbanites often return from a visit to a small town marveling at how we were treated. Instead of the averted gazes we've grown accustomed to, we're met with a friendly "Hello, how are you?" from people who really seem to mean it! That level of spontaneous, trusting communication is hard to come by in the cities where most Americans live.

Most of us did not grow up in a community where our high school classmates became our dentists, our barbers, and our children's schoolteachers. Sure, we have friends and families, but the majority of people we see each day are strangers and therefore suspect. Because we fear them, we often avoid contact, and as a result we don't use our social skills as often as we could. Our people-reading muscles have atrophied for lack of exercise.

Making Contact

If you want to become a better people-reader you must make a conscious effort to engage other people. Even the most entrenched Internet junkie can learn the true meaning of "chat" if the desire is there, but you have to get off the couch and make it happen. Work those atrophied muscles, even if it makes you feel inconvenienced, awkward, or vulnerable.

To practice and develop your people skills, start by becoming aware of how and when you make personal contact. For the next week, each time you have the opportunity to communicate with someone, enhance the quality of that communication by moving up at least one rung on the contact ladder:

1. Face-to-face meeting
2. Telephone call
3. Letter/fax/e-mail/answering machine
4. Delegation

Instead of asking someone else to set up an appointment for you, contact the person yourself by letter, fax, or e-mail. Instead of e-mailing your cross-country friend, call, even if the conversation has to be brief. Instead of phoning your neighbor to discuss the school fund-raiser, knock on her door and talk to her in person. Step by step, you'll become more comfortable with the increased contact.

Try to improve the quality of your communication, too, by making a conscious effort to reveal something of yourself. It doesn't have to be an intimate secret--in fact, many people will be turned off if you inappropriately reveal confidences. But you can share a like or dislike, a favorite restaurant, book, or movie. And ask something about the other person--where she bought a piece of jewelry, or whether he saw the ball game last night. Warm them up, and the conversation will start rolling.

After a few weeks, you'll become more adept at these social skills. Test yourself on the person checking your groceries, the receptionist in your doctor's office, the mail carrier, the next customer who walks into the shop. Connecting doesn't have to mean a ten-minute discussion. It can mean simply looking someone in the eye, smiling, and commenting on the weather. These brief sparks of contact aren't superficial, they're sociable, and they are where trust and communication--and people reading--begin.

Learn to See the Sheep

The more time you spend reading people, the easier it gets. Just as the anxiety and awkwardness of your first time behind the wheel of a car disappeared after a few months of everyday driving, people-reading skills that may seem unattainable today will become automatic with a little practice.

With willpower and persistence, we can sharpen any of our senses. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than an experience a client of mine had several years ago. He'd been hired by the Big Horn Institute, a facility dedicated to preserving an endangered species of bighorn sheep that live in the mountains just southwest of Palm Springs, California. Development of neighboring land was disturbing the sheep and interrupting their breeding activity; the institute wanted to do something about it.

When my client visited the institute, the director took him outside, pointed to the massive, rocky hills that rose up behind the offices, and said softly, "There are a lot of them out today." My client squinted up at the brown hills, trying to hide his amazement--not at the beauty of the bighorn sheep, but at his inability to see even one of them. Obviously accustomed to this reaction, the director tactfully called his attention to a sheep just below a triangular rock, and another on the crest of a hill to the left, and then another--until he'd pointed out almost a dozen.

The director's eyesight was no better than my client's. But he had learned to see the sheep. He knew how their shape broke the subtle patterns of the hills. He could detect the slight difference between their color and that of the rock. He had learned where the sheep were most likely to gather at a particular time of day. He had experience. He had contact. He had practice. What was virtually automatic to him was foreign to my client--until he, too, learned to see the sheep.


In the courtroom, I constantly watch jurors, witnesses, lawyers, spectators, and even the judge, looking for any clues about how they're responding to the case and the people presenting it. I listen carefully to the words that are spoken, and to how they are spoken. I pay attention to the way people breathe, sigh, tap their feet or fingers, or even shift their weight in a chair. As the jurors walk by I notice any unusual smells--heavily applied perfume, body odor, the scent of medication. When I shake someone's hand I take note of the feel of his handshake. I use all of my senses, all of the time.

Patience, Patience

Observing people properly takes time. Most people simply don't take enough time to gather information and reflect upon it. Instead, they frequently make critical decisions about people in a hurry, as if life were a game show in which quick answers scored more points. It's usually the other way around in life: quick answers are often wrong--and lose points.

Quick answers aren't necessary most of the time, anyway. You'll find that you often have more time to make up your mind about people than you think you do. Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man's legs should be; he responded, "Long enough to reach the ground." Likewise, the question "How much time does it take to read people?" can be answered: "As much time as you have." There is seldom a premium on the speed with which we read people; most deadlines for decision making are self-imposed. If you take all the time you really have available, you'll usually have as much as you need. If you're offered a job, the offer probably won't vanish if you ask for a few days to think about it. You seldom need to make a decision about a doctor, lawyer, accountant, daycare provider, mechanic, or purchase on the spur of the moment. So don't! Ask yourself what information would help you make the best choice, and then take the time to gather it. If you're still not sure, sleep on it.

In almost every jurisdiction in the country, the judge cautions jurors at the beginning of the trial that they must not decide the case until all the evidence has been presented. This concept has been ingrained in the law for hundreds of years, and for good reason. Just as you can't solve a riddle without all the clues, you can't make wise decisions about people if you act prematurely. To be successful, you must be patient.

Pay Attention, or Pay the Consequences

Every interview with the neighbor of a heinous criminal seems to start with "He seemed like such a nice guy." Further questioning usually reveals that the neighbor never really noticed the man and then the admission "He kept to himself." In fact, there were probably many clues that Mr. X was not such a nice guy after all. It's just that no one ever paid much attention.

Decisions are no better than the information on which they're based. Incorrect or incomplete information can lead to an incorrect conclusion--garbage in, garbage out. So before you can effectively read people, you need to gather reliable information about them. You can do this by using your eyes, your ears, and at times even your senses of touch and smell. When people fail to be attentive and focused, the consequences can be regrettable. One of the more notable moments in the O. J. Simpson criminal trial illustrates this point nicely.

Late in the trial, Laura Hart McKinny was called to the witness stand by the defense to testify about her audiotaped interviews of Mark Fuhrman, who used "the 'N' word" with alarming frequency. She was cross-examined by an obviously agitated Christopher Darden, and their exchange became more and more confrontational. Finally, Ms. McKinny asked, "Why are we having this adversarial conversation?" To me this was clearly a shot across the bow. Ms. McKinny was sending a message to Mr. Darden. Her tone and manner were saying, "Back off. I'm just telling you what I know. If you keep hounding me, you'll be sorry!" But Mr. Darden continued to bore in, either not understanding what Ms. McKinny was trying to communicate or choosing to ignore it.

Ms. McKinny was always truthful, but her early testimony had been calm and almost understated. As Mr. Darden attacked, Ms. McKinny--now apparently angry and frustrated--defended herself by providing more detail, using more descriptive and negative words, and adopting a more critical tone of voice. Her testimony quickly grew even more damaging to Detective Fuhrman--and to the prosecution.

It's not hard to recall occasions when we've been inattentive to important clues. We may hire a day-care provider without spotting the faulty latch on her backyard fence, noticing how she ignored the children under her care as she spoke to us, or paying attention to her poor grammar. Yet each of these factors could have a critical impact on our child's well-being and development. We may not notice the flushed face and ever-so-slightly slurred speech of an employee who returns from a long lunch, but these may be clues he's been drinking--maybe drinking too much. This type of critical information is usually available to you--if you just take your time and pay attention.


During jury selection, prospective jurors sit before the assembled clients and attorneys, where they are subjected to an onslaught of personal questions--which they swear to answer truthfully. They aren't allowed to ask anyone on the legal team any questions, and we have no obligation to reveal anything about ourselves. In short, the procedure is specifically designed to let one set of people, the lawyers, read another set, the jurors.

Outside the courtroom, few people will sit politely and answer a barrage of questions without wanting to ask you a few of their own. If you're reading them, they want some opportunity to read you. If you want candid responses to your questions, you usually have to give something in return. Unlike jurors, the people you engage in everyday conversation aren't required to open up to you, and they haven't sworn to be forthcoming or honest. To coax unguarded and honest responses out of them, you need to encourage them to trust you.

The best way to establish this trust is to reveal something of yourself. Let people read you to some extent, and they will feel more comfortable. As their comfort level increases, they will open up to you. It's simple--if you want a clear view of another person, you must offer a glimpse of yourself

Good trial lawyers use self-disclosure effectively to develop rapport with jurors during the jury selection process and throughout the trial. They know that even though openness isn't required of them, they can take the jury selection process to a much more meaningful level if they disclose something of themselves during the questioning. If this consistently works in an intimidating setting like the courtroom, imagine how effective it can be at a casual lunch.


Laurence J. Peter observed in The Peter Principle: "If you don't know where you're going, you will probably end up somewhere else." It's a good rule in general, but doubly important when it comes to reading people.

Long before prospective jurors enter the courtroom, the legal team and I prepare a "juror profile" that lists the personal attributes of jurors who will view our case most favorably. Sometimes we conduct mock trials or surveys of community attitudes to help us gauge the type of person who is most likely to be open-minded toward our client. I grade all candidates on their empathy, analytic ability, leadership, gregariousness, and life experiences, and on my gut reaction to them. Then I consider what other characteristics might be important in that particular case. If it's a death penalty trial, I also evaluate personal responsibility, punitiveness, and authoritarianism. In a contract dispute, I may be more concerned with prospective jurors' attention to detail or experience with legal agreements. In short, I know exactly what I'm looking for in the jurors for that particular case. If I didn't, how could I choose the right ones?

Outside the courtroom, we aren't usually so methodical. In part this is because it seems a little cold-blooded to create a list of desirable attributes. When it comes to romance, we like to think the fates will throw us together with the perfect mate. We rarely take the time to consciously evaluate even a casual friend's characteristics. By the time the bad news sinks in--"Hmmm. She doesn't keep her word"; "He's always late"; "She still hasn't taken her sick cat to the vet"--we've often become emotionally committed and find it hard to change the relationship. We devote even less forethought to people who appear less frequently in our lives--doctors, contractors, plumbers, and the like. Instead, we rely on a friend's recommendation--or, worse, an advertisement.

If we're not aware of our own needs and haven't decided what we want in a friend, a boss, or a paid professional, it's hardly fair to blame that person for disappointing us later. I recently watched a talk show in which a young man was complaining that his girlfriend of two years dressed like a streetwalker and blatantly flirted with strangers. When asked, he admitted that she had dressed and acted exactly the same way when they first met. He loved it back then, when he was focused on the immediate prospect of a few fun nights on the town; but once he decided he wanted a committed relationship, his girlfriend's wild side was unacceptable. He had failed to evaluate her in light of his long-term needs.

Before you decide whether a person meets your needs, create a mental list--or, better, a written one--of everything that is truly essential for a successful relationship of the type you're contemplating. And then don't hesitate to regularly compare your real-life candidate with the ideal one.

Whether you're looking for a husband, a business partner, or a gardener, reflect on the experience and qualities you'd like this person to have. If you're a divorced woman with two young children, it might make sense to date men who also have kids: they'll understand the demands of a family. If you're looking for a business partner, ask yourself exactly what skills your enterprise will need that you don't possess--and look for someone who has them. If you need a gardener, decide whether you want a master of topiary art or someone to reliably mow the lawn and rake leaves once a week.

Whatever you do, approach the task with absolute honesty. You won't be doing anyone a favor by pretending to have different needs and priorities than you really have. Once you know what to look for, you'll be much more likely to know whether you've found it.


During jury selection, I have only one goal: to assemble a group of people who will listen with an open mind to my client's side of the story. It's easy for me to be completely objective about this, since I have no vested interest in any particular juror serving or being excused from the jury. They aren't friends, family, or even acquaintances. Odds are I'll never see them again.

When I first tried to apply my people-reading methods to my personal life, I quickly found that the objectivity I took for granted in the courtroom was my greatest weakness. In real life, I cared very much what others thought of me. I agonized over how I'd feel if I said, "Yes," "No," "You're not right," or "You're not good enough." In order to translate my courthouse skills to the outside world, I'd have to transfer my objectivity as well. You can't read people accurately unless you view them objectively.

Unfortunately, as a general rule, the more important a decision is in your life, the more difficult it is to stay objective. It's easy to be objective about whether a casual acquaintance might be a good blind date for your brother. If she's a co-worker, there's more at stake; if she's your boss, there's even more; if she's your best friend, all bets are off.

We all have a tendency to make decisions based on what will be painful or pleasant for us at the moment. All too often, we pick the easiest, least confrontational solution because our emotions blind us to the big picture or the long-term reality. If a woman's boyfriend constantly flirts with other women, she'll probably notice it. But if she's in love and doesn't want to admit to herself that her boyfriend has wandering eyes--and that the rest of him is probably not far behind--she may choose to think his behavior is innocent. Odds are, if he were somebody else's boyfriend, she wouldn't be so charitable. A businessman who is having trouble with a new employee may prefer to write off her mistakes to new-job jitters, rather than admit he needs to replace her. And the daughter of an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease may explain away her mother's bizarre behavior rather than face the painful truth.

Whenever the truth is threatening, we tend to reach for the blinders. Just a few years ago, a friend confided to me that her teenage daughter must be lovesick, although as far as she knew the girl hadn't been seeing anyone in particular.

"How can you tell she's in love?" I wanted to know.

"Well, her grades have really started to slip. She seems to have lost her interest in everything, sleeps late all the time, stays out till all hours without calling. She just seems to be very distracted."

To me this behavior screamed "drugs," not "young love." My heart went out to my friend as I gently suggested this possibility, which she briefly considered, then rejected. It took her another six months to confront her daughter, who by that time was prepared to acknowledge her drug problem and accept help.

It is human nature to close our eyes--and minds--to things that are uncomfortable or disturbing. Leon Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance" in 1957 to describe the phenomenon. One symptom of cognitive dissonance is a person's refusal to accept the obvious, as my friend did with her daughter. This is a form of delusional thinking. The word "delusional" usually brings to mind someone who has completely lost sight of reality and who babbles meaninglessly or lies without any perception of the truth. But most delusional activity takes place in the minds of ordinary people like you and me as we make day-to-day decisions that may have tremendous impact on our lives. The truth is hard to see, especially when we don't want to see it.

Most lapses in objectivity are due to some degree of cognitive dissonance or delusional thinking. Even though it's difficult, we can overcome our tendency to ignore facts we don't like. First, we have to understand what it is that upsets us so much that we're willing to ignore or distort reality instead of acting on it. I've found that four states of mind most often lead to the loss of objectivity:

1. Emotional commitment
2. Neediness
3. Fear
4. Defensiveness

If you avoid making decisions while under the influence of these four mind-sets, you are far more likely to stay objective.

Emotional Commitment. The Tie That Blinds

We all feel love, friendship, contempt, and even hatred for some people in our lives. These feelings all tend to compromise our objectivity. We don't want to think ill of those we love, and we don't want to see anything good in those we hate. To further complicate matters, most of us dislike change. For our own security and convenience, we have an emotional commitment--to ourselves--to keeping things just as they are. The same emotional undercurrent that pulls us toward the status quo also warps our objectivity when we're deciding whether to change it.

Once you're emotionally committed to a particular outcome, it can be very hard to maintain your objectivity. The stronger the emotional commitment, the greater the tendency to behave irrationally. This is why counselors usually advise against sexual intimacy until mutual respect, trust, and friendship have been well established. Once the powerful and pleasurable ingredient of sex has been added to a relationship, we tend to overlook even basic flaws until the passion subsides. By then we may be well down the road toward emotional disaster.

You can't always avoid making decisions when you're emotionally vulnerable, but if you're aware of the pitfalls, you can sidestep many of them. To begin with, try to avoid situations in which you may feel pressured to arrive at a particular answer. In those circumstances, you'll lose your objectivity. The result may be that you'll make a bad decision in the first place, then be reluctant to acknowledge your mistake even when it should become obvious later on. If you interview the daughter of a friend for a job, you may overlook her fundamental deficiencies, because you're not going to want to tell your friend his daughter doesn't measure up. If you hire your neighbor as your accountant, or your golfing buddy as your lawyer, you'll tend to overlook what would otherwise be unacceptable performance because of your friendship. Whenever your worlds collide, you bring the emotional commitments of one to the other. If you mix business with pleasure, the result might turn out fine, but more likely your desire to keep everyone happy and avoid confrontation will lead you to misread people.

Another common way we create emotional commitment is recognized in a typical jury instruction: on beginning their deliberations, jurors are told not to announce their feelings about the case until after they've discussed it together. Once people publicly commit themselves to a particular viewpoint, they are reluctant to change it. Pride, stubbornness, or fear of admitting we made a mistake gets in the way. If your goal is to be objective when evaluating other people, don't hamstring yourself by announcing your feelings about someone to your friends, family, or coworkers before you've had time to gather pertinent information and carefully think it over.

If you do find yourself evaluating someone to whom you have an emotional commitment, at least be aware that your objectivity is probably impaired. Be conscious of your emotions, and thoughtfully employ the people-reading techniques discussed in the chapters that follow. Take a little extra time and effort before you form any lasting conclusions. Consider whether a trusted and respected friend who is more objective may be able to add perspective. Play devil's advocate by asking yourself how you would view the person if you weren't so close to the situation. Even if you can't eliminate the influence of your emotional commitment, you can minimize it by using one or more of these techniques.

Don't Shop When You're Hungry

Negotiators have a saying: "The person who wants the deal the most gets the worst deal." This rule applies to relationships, too: the person with the greatest need is most likely to fill it with Mr. or Ms. Wrong. Only after he's felt the sting of his mistake will he recognize his decision for what it was--a compromise.

We first learn to compromise as children, when we fall victim to the lure of immediate gratification. We'll take the bicycle with a scratch on the fender rather than wait for an undamaged replacement to arrive, because we are afraid that Dad may change his mind if we don't act quickly. As teenagers, we may accept the first offer of a date to the senior prom because we worry that no one else will ask. As adults, we continue to make bad decisions about people out of neediness. The most familiar example of this is the inevitably disastrous "rebound relationship." But neediness also drives the employer who's desperate to fill a position and hires the first passable applicant, only to find himself flipping through resumes again two months later; or the parent who settles for substandard child care rather than miss another day of work.

My mother used to say, "Don't shop when you're hungry." Good advice. When you're hungry, everything looks tempting, and you end up bringing home items you don't really need, plus some that may even be bad for you. The key is to slow down long enough to write a shopping list and maybe even have a healthy snack while you write it. Just don't let your unchecked cravings rule the day, whether you're shopping for dinner or a wife.

One crisis that has erupted throughout the country as a result of the increase in two-wage-earner households is the day-care scramble. Good day care is hard to find and often hard to keep. When the child-care provider leaves without giving her employers much notice, they're thrown into a frenzy looking for a replacement. It's hard to imagine a more stressful situation: you need a very special person to care for your child, and until you find that person, you can't go to work, which jeopardizes your livelihood. Choosing a long-term child-care provider under these circumstances is a terrible idea, Don't fool yourself into believing you can be objective under these conditions.

Whenever you find yourself reacting differently than you would if you had unlimited time, you're acting out of neediness and won't be reading people clearly. Stop and consider alternative courses of action before you go forward. It's often best to find a temporary solution to begin with, and decide on a permanent one later. The parents urgently seeking child care could put their immediate efforts into convincing a friend or family member to pitch in for a week or two, buying them time to look for permanent help. If they can afford it, they can hire a professional nanny for a while. Temporary solutions may be more expensive or inconvenient in the short run, but they'll give you the time you need to make a wise choice about your long-term selection.

Fear: The Great Motivator

Many psychologists believe our primary motivator is fear--fear rooted in our instinctive desire to avoid loss, pain, and death. With such a powerful emotion at work, it's little wonder that objectivity usually gets pushed aside.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of fear on our ability to read people. And it is impossible to remove fear from the equation entirely. We fear ending a relationship because we're afraid we won't find anyone better. We fear turning down a job: what if it's the best offer we get? We may even avoid disciplining our children because we're afraid we'll alienate them.

There's no magic pill to eliminate our fear and clear our vision while we evaluate people. Our viewpoint will always be somewhat skewed by our desire to avoid pain. But we can diminish our fear--and even use it to help us better read the people in our lives. If we understand why we are afraid, and bow other people can either cause or eliminate the pain we fear, we can use fear to our advantage.

To repeat a point made earlier, the more important a decision is, the harder it is to stay objective. Fear is a major reason--fear that can develop into mental paralysis when a great deal is riding on a decision. For example, suppose you find yourself in a dead-end job. After several years, you get the uneasy feeling that your days there are numbered and consider leaving. Perhaps you feel that your boss is treating you differently than she used to. You've been trying to evaluate what she thinks of you and whether she is looking for a reason to fire you. No matter how hard you try to be objective, you can't help but be influenced by your fear.

To help neutralize the fear and become more objective, you should make two lists: one of all the painful experiences you might have if you stay at the job; another of the painful experiences you might suffer if you chose to leave. The first list might include ongoing stress, humiliation or ridicule by your boss, lack of promotion or raises, and, most terrifying of all, being fired. The second list might include landing another job that is even worse, loss of seniority that could make you even more vulnerable in the new job, being unable to find a new job, and failing at your new position, so that you lose it, too.

By making these lists, you start getting a grip on your fears. At least now you know what you're afraid of. If one set of fears is clearly worse, in most instances you'll choose the less painful option. But if both routes have comparable risks, you should at least be able to put your generalized fear aside and focus on gathering specific information with which to objectively evaluate your real concerns.

The best weapon against fear is knowledge. When you list your fears, you gain knowledge of yourself and your motivations. After you've gained that insight, you can go on to gather more objective information about the people who will ultimately influence your decision. If you carefully watch your boss as she relates to you and to others, perhaps you'll find she bluntly criticizes everyone. Or maybe you'll find she's complimentary to others and harsh only with you. From observations like these, you will eventually be able to correctly read your boss's intentions, reliably predict her behavior, and choose the best plan of action.

This is exactly the process I have found so helpful when selecting a jury. Frequently we must decide if we should keep Juror Number One or reject her in favor of Juror Number Two. Each may present very different combinations of potential benefits and dangers. It may be more probable that Juror Number One will be critical of the prosecution's case, and therefore more likely to find the defendant not guilty--but she takes a hard line on the death penalty, so she'll probably be tough on the defendant if there's a conviction. Juror Number Two, on the other hand, may seem more likely to accept the prosecution's case, but less likely to impose the death penalty. Both options present risks and thus give rise to fear. After a trial is over, I don't want to wonder whether my client would be free if I'd picked Juror Number One or, even worse, if he'd be alive if I'd picked Juror Number Two. The only way I can sleep at night is to know that I have made the best, most objective, most rational decision possible.

By mentally listing the specific consequences I fear most about each choice, I force myself to focus on them clearly. This helps me form questions for the prospective jurors that will help me gain insights into their attitudes about those issues that are troubling me. I then discuss my observations and the risks associated with choosing each juror with the defendant and his lawyer. Ultimately, it's the lawyers and defendants who must choose if they will risk a possible death sentence in exchange for a better chance of an acquittal--but it is my job to bring as much objectivity as possible to the process. You can use the same process to make better decisions in your own life.

Defensiveness: The Fastest Way to a Closed Mind

No one likes to be attacked or criticized. We often respond by shoring up our defenses like a fort under siege. We see red and quit listening. We lose objectivity, and along with it our good judgment.

I've seen it a hundred times in court. A lawyer is cross-examining a witness and hits a nerve. The witness tenses, sets his jaw, and leans forward; he becomes confrontational, sarcastic, or argumentative. Intent on defending himself, he completely loses sight of the way he looks to everyone in the courtroom, including the jury. He doesn't see the jurors shake their heads or hear the comments they mutter under their breath. He no longer knows or cares whether he is answering the lawyer's question, and everyone sees it.

I remember a vivid example of this from a trial a few years ago involving a dispute over the ownership of a large piece of real estate. The defendant, a successful real estate developer, came to hate the lawyer who represented the investor who was suing him. The investor's lawyer quickly learned how to push the defendant's buttons, and the defendant became argumentative and confrontational. He wouldn't concede even the most minor, obvious points to this man whom he loathed. To the simple question "Isn't it true you told my client you had approval from the city to build a golf course on the property?" he snapped back, "I didn't tell him anything, I only wrote him letters." When the investor's lawyer continued, "Well, when you wrote him, didn't you say that in your letters?" the defendant responded sarcastically, "You tell me, you have copies of all my letters." After just a few moments of this, the jury was ready to throttle the man. And when the trial was over, they did--with their verdict.

As hard as it is to keep your eyes and ears open under ordinary circumstances, it's even more difficult when you're under attack--but that is exactly when you need to be most clearheaded and objective. If your boss or best customer is criticizing your, performance, you should listen and learn if you want to keep your job or your key account. The last thing you should do is to misread your critic because you're focusing solely on what you're going to say to defend yourself. If your husband tries to explain to you why he's unhappy in your marriage, watch and listen carefully; don't withdraw or respond with a defensive tirade--at least, not if your marriage is important to you.

Remember, there will almost always be a time and a place for you to respond, and your response will be much more effective if you thoroughly understand what you're responding to. The only way to gain that understanding is to stifle your defensiveness and open your ears and your mind. As we tell witnesses before they are cross-examined by the opposing lawyer: "Just listen carefully to the questions and do your best to answer them. Don't argue. You'll have a chance to explain your side of the story later." Good advice, inside the courtroom and out.


The next step toward reading readiness is to clear your mind of the stereotypes and other forms of mental laziness that so often substitute for careful reflection. You can't pour a hot bath if you start with a tub that's half full of cold water. And if you want to evaluate people accurately, you must start from scratch, without preconceived notions of where you should end up. Think of yourself as a pipe clogged with years of deposits from an assortment of biases and prejudices. You need to scrape off those deposits and let information flow freely.

Most of us are somewhat aware of our own prejudices. Although we don't like to admit it, we often judge people by their race, sex, age, national origin, economic status, or appearance. As this book stresses throughout, hundreds of characteristics can have a significant influence on how someone thinks and behaves. But no trait exists in isolation, and no single trait takes precedence over others in every situation. It's a mistake to base your evaluation of anyone on a bias you may have about people with a particular single characteristic. This sort of stereotyping can derail your efforts to predict behavior even before you get started.

I've found that forcing yourself to recognize your biases is the first step to overcoming them. As soon as you're aware that you're making a snap judgment about a person on the basis of some bias, you can stop yourself. You can identify your prejudice and remind yourself that you can't evaluate a person when you have so little to go on. You need to evaluate a great deal of information about people before you can see patterns that will enable you to understand them. Force yourself to look for more details.

I often do this myself in jury selection. After interviewing thousands of people, I've noticed that people who share certain characteristics often think and act alike. Consequently, I have become biased. I tend to expect that the wealthy will be tougher on crime than the poor; that men with long beards will be less conservative than those who are clean-shaven; and that young people will respect authority less than older people do. Whenever I'm evaluating someone who falls into one or more identifiable groups--which means just about everybody--I make a conscious effort to put aside preconceptions as I gather and evaluate information about the person. Otherwise I can't say I'm reading ready.

Less obvious than stereotyping is shortcut thinking--taking the easiest route to a conclusion. This tendency is so common that advertisers take advantage of it all the time to sell us things. The ad that touts a car as "the best-selling vehicle on the market" appeals to us because we naturally conclude that if "everyone else" is buying the car, it must indeed be the best. Jumping to this conclusion is easier than poring through a stack of Consumer Reports and making an informed decision for ourselves. In fact, the car may be the worst vehicle on the market, selling so well only because it is the most heavily advertised. This kind of shortcut thinking can also interfere with reading people. We tend to assume that a person who uses big words is knowledgeable and reliable, or that a person who wears sunglasses indoors must be a shady character. But if we don't go further and test our snap judgments, we could be wrong.

The point was illustrated during jury selection in a murder case in which a middle-aged African-American man, conservatively dressed and articulate, wore sunglasses to court three days in a row. The legal team couldn't help but wonder why. What was going on? Was he bleary-eyed from night after night of partying? Was he making a fashion statement, or a political one? Could he be hiding bruises from a fistfight? Surely the sunglasses reflected on his character in some way--don't they always? There were as many theories as there were lawyers in the courtroom. Finally, the prosecutor asked the question that was on all of our minds. The prospective juror took off his glasses and revealed an injury that made one of his eyes hypersensitive to light.

If a decision is not terribly important, you may choose to take the easy route when judging somebody, just to save time. But whenever your conclusion is critical to your personal or professional success, shortcut thinking simply isn't good enough. In these circumstances, you must ask yourself whether you have started with a clean slate and validated your conclusions independently. You can't afford to jump recklessly from A to Z without stopping anywhere in between.


We've all complained about someone: our dentist, doctor, day-care provider, tax preparer. We've figured them out. They're sloppy, lazy, uncaring, incompetent, or dishonest--yet we keep going back to them like lambs to the slaughter. Why bother reaching the right conclusion in the first place if we're not going to act on it? Why don't we just go ahead and do the right thing?

There can be several reasons. Sometimes we hesitate out of misplaced charity or a lack of confidence in our own judgment. We may still have some doubt about our impression and feel that if we just dig a little deeper, we'll find the missing clue that will explain the person's behavior. If you're not convinced that your evidence is solid, it makes sense to go back and gather more. But remember, there's no guarantee you'll ever understand anyone completely no matter how much information you gather. And at some point you have to make a decision, or you'll be trapped in "analysis paralysis."

Some people fail to act because they simply can't bear the emotional pain or uncertainty of a difficult decision. If you have this problem, remember that maintaining the status quo is a decision. If a relationship isn't working, the decision not to change it is a decision to stay in it.

When you're stuck in a situation and unable to act on the information you've gathered, try a little trick. Pretend you have several choices, one of which is just exactly the way things are. For instance, if you are questioning whether your current romantic relationship is right for you, ask yourself: If I were single and I met someone exactly like the person with whom I'm currently involved, would I want to settle into a relationship with the new person, or would I keep searching? Objectively evaluate all the available information. If you find yourself recoiling from the prospect of jumping into a new relationship just like the one you're in, it may be time for a change.

I tried this very exercise a few years ago when I was unhappy with my secretary. I asked myself whether I'd hire her if I needed a secretary and she applied. I had to answer with a resounding no. As simple as it might seem, it took this exercise to help me make the right decision.

Sometimes we delay decisions because we fool ourselves into believing that the person who has disappointed us will change. This doesn't happen just between lovers, spouses, and friends. For example, attorneys should know better, but I've seen many a lawyer accept a juror who is openly hostile to his case because he believed the juror would be swayed by his eloquence. But I've seldom seen that transformation take place. After watching thousands of people make decisions, I've learned it's a lot easier to change the way you think about a person than to change the way that person thinks!

Finally, there will undoubtedly be times when you've gathered and objectively evaluated all the available information, yet still find that the best choice isn't clear. In those cases you just have to make the best decision you can. You may have made a bad choice, and you may be sorry later, but you can take some comfort in the knowledge that few decisions are irreversible. If you make the wrong call about someone, you usually won't need to live with that choice forever.

One final word about reading readiness: as you go on to acquire the more specific skills described in the rest of this book, keep practicing the basic skills outlined in this chapter. They are the key to getting the most out of this book, because they will put you into the proper state of mind to understand people better. They will help you stay receptive and alert--the very qualities you need if you're to make rapid progress.


Excerpted from Reading People by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius Copyright © 1999 by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2008

    A reviewer

    One of my favorite books purchased as a gift to myself in 1999. I refer to the information written within for an understanding of the people and situations I am confronted with. A great book to add to your library of hobby or professional reading of people. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius corners the silent language of 'body language' and a person's predictability.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2006

    An OK Book

    If you have absolutely no famliarity with people, this book would be great start. I like the author's emphasis of behavioral context. I also appreciate the preparatory notes. However, if you are looking for something more in-depth, this may not suffice for you. There are good stories involved, but the author does not relate them adequately to the technicalities. I recommend this book to someone who is interested in getting a grip on interpersonal indicators.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2004

    There are better books on the subject

    I thought the book spent too much time explaining past experiences and accomplishments. Actual useful information was too sparse for my taste.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2004

    Well thought out, balanced, concise, and to the point

    If you look for reliable information thoughtfully presented, as I do, you will like this book. The first author is a top-flight legal consultant specializing in jury selection. She knows what she's talking about. I especially liked the objective, analytic attitude that permeates the book. The authors never forget to qualify their statements and warn the reader that there always are exceptions and false leads. What a difference from the watered down platitudes delivered with solemn confidence that are all too common in the self-help literature! The first chapter speaks about the method---objectivity is key; there are no silver bullets; practice makes perfect. The second chapter lays out the people-reading process in broad strokes. Subsequent chapters take on specific issues: physical appearance, behavior, context, etc. Most specifics are plain common sense but there is great value in having them gathered together and systematized. There is a one-page summary of the key points at the end of each chapter. Two detailed appendices list the various signs and their possible interpretations. All in all, this book bears all the marks of a useful and trustworthy source. I enjoyed reading it and I'm sure I'll refer to it every now and then. For the time being, I'm off to the sequel: 'Putting Your Best Foot Forward.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2004

    very informative

    This book is interesting and informative. If you are looking for ways to read people, this book gives you something to go on.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2000

    Get it

    I have read this entire book. An intermediate revelation of various signals..what they mean in most cases..or what they could mean in others..very understandable....incorporates all possibilities...great book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2010

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