Read an Excerpt
Preparing for the Challenge of
“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 babysitter’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.
Discovering the Lost Art of Reading People
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 an instant message? 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 from lack of exercise.
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:
Instead of asking someone else to set up an appointment for you, contact the person yourself by letter, fax, or e-mail. Instead of text messaging on your BlackBerry or 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 Bighorn 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.
Stop, Look, and Listen
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.
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, day-care 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.