How to read people like an FBI agent
I was on a was on a walk the other day when my fiance and I passed by a woman talking to her child. As we passed, we heard her say: “You know, some people act like they’re your friend, but they’re really not!”
We both looked at each other and giggled–considering that is a hefty lesson to try and teach a 5 year old–and it was clear that the woman had been burned before. But I got to thinking about it: How often do we miss the signs and the cues that DO tell us someone isn’t a good friend? That something is off in your relationship? That something is not quite right?
It reminds me of when you talk to couples who have been together for a long time and say: “Then, overnight, everything changed”, which led to their breakup or divorce.
This used to scare me, thinking: Oh dear! Scary things will happen out of the blue I have no control over and the love of my life will somehow, mysteriously, turn into an unrecognizable monster and I won’t be in love with him anymore!
But that is NOT how life–or people–really work.
Because there are signs–EVERYWHERE–that people choose to ignore
When you find your relationship is on the rocks, it is not because you didn’t take out the trash. That is a symptom of much bigger, deeper problems. Usually that there have been little problems building up over time–tiny things that seemed like they didn’t matter–but boy, they did. And when they build up, it is a breeding ground for resentment, frustration, and anger.
But there are SO MANY WAYS to prevent this!
And it starts with learning how to ‘read’ people–the art of understand what people are NOT saying, NOT communicating, and NOT telling you. It’s a hard skill to learn, but you can learn it. The most important part of it is learning HOW to listen.
Case Study #1: The Friend Who Is Not ‘Friend’ Material
I hear a LOT of complaints from people about how their friends are flaky, or that they give to their friends all the time and get nothing in return. What they would really hate to hear from me is that they not only attracted those friends, but CHOSE to STAY friends with those people.
This is one of those situations that people hate to realize that they are the most common dominator in. They blame other people, but really, there were red flags and signs from the very beginning that ‘signal’ to you they might not be friend material.
This happened to me a few months ago.
I met someone new, and really enjoyed them. They made a great first impression, and I’m always up for getting to know someone better to see if we might be longer-term friends. I am a serial friend-dater, indeed.
We set up a time to get together, but before then, happened to be at a group BBQ together. It was there that I noticed that something was off. This person is certainly a good person, but I noticed they were a bit flighty. I felt that they couldn’t really keep their train of thoughts straight.
This wasn’t a deal breaker, but I filed it away in my head. Noted. Words of my surrogate grandmother, Maya Angelou, ring through my head: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”
After the BBQ, we agreed we were still on for our plans.
But then, at the last minute on the day we were supposed to meet, they canceled. Without an attempt to make up for it or make new plans. And it wasn’t that something more important had come up–like family, or an emergency. It was…just ‘because’.
When it happened, I almost wasn’t surprised. Given what I had observed, the pieces fit. So I made a mental decision: That this person, was a good person. But for me, not friend material. I wasn’t going to make an effort to get together again.
And because I do that, and accept that this is who the person is right now, I don’t end up in situations where I feel frustrated, angry, or resentful for someone being a flake. I saw it from day 1, saw it manifest itself, and decided I was not interested.
This is what I mean by READING THE SIGNS
The faster you can read them, the more control you have. YOU can decide if you want to continue or limit a relationship with someone. If they change later on, great! But don’t wait around expecting that to happen. You’ll waste your life.
Case Study #2: The Exceptional Conversationalist
So often, the get this question from people: “How do I stop talking or rambling too much?”
But this is a more complicated question than that. What that question doesn’t consider is the other person in the interaction. A way to look at it that will give you more helpful answers is: “What should I look for in the other person to tell me when I should end a story, or ask them a question?”
Why is this better?
It puts the focus on THEM–READING THEM–instead of on you.
Because we know that sometimes people may talk for a while, but they are wildly entertaining storytellers. But other people talk for just a sentence, and it’s like you’re hearing a PSA from the Great Depression. You want to get out of there as fast as possible.
Because there are no ‘hard and fast’ rules. It’s all about your AUDIENCE.
One of the mistakes I see people make all the time is talking about what is NOT relevant to the people in the conversation. They go on–way past when the other person’s eyes have glazed over–before they have any understanding of whether or not the other person is interested.
Here’s what I mean:
Let’s say someone asks you what your favorite restaurant is. Let’s say it’s an Italian place. You start raving about the place and talking about Italian food. Little do you know, that the person you’re talking to doesn’t eat pasta, prefers Indian food, and has already been to the place you mentioned and doesn’t like it.
Usually we’d face this fact with indignation: How am I supposed to know?!
The answer is to ASK.
So instead of: “My favorite place is so-and-so, it’s so delicious, it’s right on this street, you HAVE to go there, I just LOVE Italian food, etc”
You say: “I love this place called X. Have you ever heard of it or been there?”
You ask the question to ‘take the temperature’ on the other person. If they respond with enthusiasm, you two can go to town on the virtues of Parmesan cheese and what makes fine capellini. But if NOT, you simply ask them another question: “Oh no? It’s fantastic. What’s your favorite place?”
Asking these kinds of questions prevents ALL kinds of unpleasant moments in conversation where one person feel like the other person isn’t listening or ‘getting’ them.
So this is not just about reading the signs, but asking questions to see what the signs ARE. Let other people reveal themselves to you, instead of trying to guess.
Case Study #3: Hearing the Unsaid
I love when I hear from someone: “Well this person said X…so why aren’t they doing that?”
And I have to gently break the news that people *rarely* say what they mean, and that while the person may have had good intentions, they didn’t actually mean what they said.
It’s like a while ago when a reader emailed me saying that one of my emails was ‘scammy’. He had even showed it to his friends, who agreed with his assessment.
Now this is someone I had interacted with before. He wasn’t a stranger. So at first I was annoyed that he emailed telling me that.
But then I understood what was really going on.
It wasn’t my email that was scammy. It was that I used an email to sell a service of mine–and it threatened him. Whatever beliefs and preconceived notions he had about money and selling were triggered by my email. So the only way to deal with it was to express that to me.
But this is why it was impossible for me to feel offended. He wasn’t assaulting my character. His reaction was all about him. Once I understood that, it was easy to handle.
So in that case, even though he said one thing, I couldn’t take it at face value. I had to dig deeper and really understand where he was coming from.
Another example of this:
When I was younger, and dating guys that weren’t right for me, I would be so upset when they would say “I’ll call you” or “You’re perfect” and then not call, and break up with me.
But this is one of those situations where when you’re dealing with people, you have to watch what people DO…not what they say.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that even though they didn’t treat me well…I let them. They had no respect for me. So for them, saying “I’ll call” is just a nicety. You just say it, without thinking about it. My fault was taking it as gospel.
But because they didn’t truly respect me, they never followed-through. You have to understand why–it was because I never acted in a way that let them know I was worth treating well! This was MY responsibility…not theirs. I let the whole thing happen.
So How Do You Start to Practice This?
Reading between the lines and learning HOW to listen is one of the most critical, underrated skills to cultivate of all time. Without it, it’s too easy to get into unpleasant situations, too easy to be manipulated, and too easy to be disappointed. When you learn how to read people, you have power–in the best way. You are not at the whims of other people.
So today, instead of telling you what to do, I”m going to offer you something fun.
Email me back and tell me about a situation that you had no idea how it happened, or how to respond. Maybe it was a weird situation at work, or in your relationship, or with a friend. Or your kid! I’ll respond back to point out the parts that are ‘red flags’ and exactly how to decode them. That way you know what this looks like in practice, and you can go out and do it yourself.
Email me back and tell me your story. I can’t wait to help you.