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.
Technique #1: 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.
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?
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, sign of a big ego?
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 on their laps, in their pockets, or put them behind their back, this 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.
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.
Technique #2: 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, ah-has, and body knowings, 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.
Honor your gut feelings: Listen to what your gut says, a visceral reaction that occurs before you have a chance to think, especially during first meetings. It relays whether you’re at ease or not. Gut feelings occur quickly; it’s a primal response. They’re your internal truth meter, relaying if you can trust people.
Feel the goosebumps: Goosebumps are marvelous intuitive tingles which convey that we resonate with people who move or inspire us, or say that something 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.
Pay attention to flashes of insight: In conversations, you may get an “ah-ha” about people which comes in a flash. Stay alert, otherwise you might miss it. We tend to go onto the next thought so rapidly that these critical insights are lost.
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.
Technique #3: 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.
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?
Watch people’s eyes: Our eyes transmit powerful energies. 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?
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, or confident? Is it off-putting so you want to withdraw? Are people’s hands clammy, signaling anxiety… or limp, suggesting being non-committal and timid?
Listen for people’s 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?
By using the above 3 strategies, you will be able to read people better than ever before. And on top of all that, when you are aware of body language cues deep down, you can pay attention to your personal moves in order to ensure you are communicating exactly what you intend to!