Read people like a book

„Read people like a book“ by Patrick King is a hard pill to swallow since it forces us to face ourselves and that’s never an easy thing to do.

Chris Voss, former FBI Agent, explains how exactly communication works. In his “Never split the difference”, he describes communication as:

  • 7% consisting of the words we use (verbal)
  • 38% consisting of the way we say what we want to say (para-verbal)
  • 55% consisting of our overall body language during the conversation (non-verbal)

If we look more carefully at the above division, there’s no wonder we often misunderstand each other.

Out of the words we exchange, a small percentage of 7% comes through. Moreover, that small percentage decreases the moment the other person uses an aggressive tone of voice.

After such a bleak forecast of our possibility to understand each other, can we honestly believe we can communicate successfully and understand each other?

Reading people is a process


Reading people is not something we are born with. Even though there are people out there who seem to sense when they are being lied to or seem to have an extra sense about things, we’re not talking about magic.

The experts at reading people are just like us, only better trained. After years of practice, they developed the “reading people” skill.

The good news is that we’re talking about a skill. This means that it’s not something that only the enlightened few possess. It’s a skill that we can all learn and develop over time.

We get in our own way when it comes to reading people

Some of us believe that we are better at reading people than others.

But, are we really?

Isn’t it possible that we tend to remember more accurately all the times when we were right about people instead of all the times when we were wrong? Are we the exception or are we only the victims of the “confirmation bias”, bringing to the surface only the examples that help us prove a point?

The fact is that people are often far less accurate judges of character than they like to believe.

We tend to become oblivious of the context element. When trying to read people, we sometimes forget to throw things like background, culture, and experience into the mix.

Another thing we do is look for patterns. We see a person blink more time than normal and we suddenly see it as a pattern. We then associate the behavior with a character trait, and we have ourselves a conclusion. However, we forget that people are more complicated than that.

How about another important thing we tend to leave out and that is “ourselves”. We have a tendency to see what other people are doing without even considering whether our behavior has triggered theirs instead of the other way around.

If we look for motivation, we’re a step closer to reading people better

Our inner child still lives


Let’s say you have a new colleague. You both get a list of tasks to do but your colleague seems to slack off. When you confront him or her, they seem to be going into a defensive mode. They tap into their inner child since you have taken on the role of the parent the moment you tried to reprimand them. You are witnessing a child essentially throwing a tantrum.

After all, it’s during childhood that we understood what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior, what’s acceptable and what’s not.

When we are adults, we are expected to behave responsibly and show self-restraint. But a person in a child-like mode may be (psychologically speaking) a child, who pushes you to respond as a parent would: with soothing, reprimanding, or taking responsibility for them.

There’s a better chance for you to reach a result if you acknowledge that you are dealing with child-like behavior. You’ll never get further if you continue to feed that behavior. The moment you deliberately engage with your colleague’s adult aspect, you change the dynamic. You make it impossible for them to stay in the child-like modus.

Expression of the Shadow

The Swiss psychologist Carl Young talks about the concept of shadow as a motivation trigger. To put it simply: the shadow entails all the aspects of our human nature we have suppressed, ignored, or turned away. These are the parts we hide from people and even from ourselves.

The idea is that when we integrate our shadow, we become complete, functional human beings.

The thing about the shadow is that even though we have suppressed it to our subconscious, it tends to come into the light at the slightest trigger, without us even knowing it. It can manifest itself in our thoughts, feelings, dreams, in all those small unguarded moments.

If we can recognize those moments in others, we can better understand where they are coming from, instead of just labeling them as fools.

If we knew that the bully at school learned to suppress from awareness his own feelings of inferiority, weakness, and fear, we might even show understanding and compassion. This will help us to deal with all of him instead of just the violent, conscious part.

One thing we cannot do is to force the other person to acknowledge the suppressed part of the self. However, this helps us to know that there’s another perspective to the story and act accordingly.

Pleasure or pain

The Pleasure or Pain principle is the most renowned because it’s the easiest to understand.

It was Sigmund Freund who first raised the pleasure principle in the public consciousness. However, even before Freud, Aristotle, in ancient Greece noted how easily people could be manipulated and motivated through the pleasure or pain principle.

The pleasure principle is quite simple. People will anything to gain pleasure and avoid pain. It’s the pleasure and pain principle that guides most of our decisions and as a result our behaviors.

What’s more astounding is that people work harder to avoid the pain than to get pleasure.

Pleasure, pain and time

An interesting aspect of the pleasure or pain principle is the time factor. In gaining pleasure or avoiding pain there’s no future, only present. This explains why it’s so important for drug addicts to get the next fix, not thinking about what happens to them in the future. As a smoker, you know what happens to you in the future. But the future is so far away. The only thing you know right now is that you want to smoke the next cigarette, that’s it.

We base our decisions on the perceptions of pleasure or pain. It’s that moment when somebody out a bowl of jalapeño chapulines (grasshoppers) in front of you. You haven’t tried it before, but you imagine the feeling of biting into a grasshopper even though it’s cooked. You make the decision of not trying the food even though your decision is solely based on your perception and not on reality.

We are more vulnerable than we think

We might know that doing something is good or bad for us. We also understand the reason why that is. But, if our illogical id is keen on satisfying a certain craving, then it’s probably going to be the winner. If we think about our previously mentioned smoker, we understand the drive behind his decision to light a cigarette.

We will also make an emotional decision if we believe that doing something useful might cause us too much stress or temporary dissatisfaction. Our emotions will win this argument as well.

Whenever we have to make a decision based on logic or emotion, emotion will most likely win.

The next we meet someone, it’s easier for us to understand their behavior if we think about the motivation behind their decision of acting the way they do. What could be the pleasure they’re trying to gain or the pain they’re trying to avoid.

Not everything is only pleasure or pain

The pleasure principle comes from economics and the attempt to predict the markets and human buying behavior. It’s the rational choice theory. It basically says our choices and decisions spring from the desire to achieve self-satisfaction. We act only because it’s in our best interest.

However, all the above-mentioned theories do not have a universal application without a zero-error percentage.

People are capable of self-restraint and discipline. We are more than able to derive pleasure from helping other people more than we derive from satisfying our own selfish interests.

The fear of death tops all pleasures and pains


We believe we are strong mentally. Yet, we’re more vulnerable than we think. The fear of death is the strongest motivation trigger there is. When the feeling of our death strikes us, reason goes out the window. We cease to function normally and we’re focused on only one goal, that of staying alive. We’re so terrified of something which is bound to happen in the distant future. However, if we think about the time factor, the future is not something we worry about. It’s the here and now that gets a hold of us and the fear of immediate death is our kryptonite. 

The irony of it all is that, while we’re reading and learning about the same motivation triggers, there are people who choose it in order to manipulate and make us believe it’s all in our best interest. All the skills we use to get us closer to one another and understand there’s something more to humans than meets the eye can be the same thing used against us.

It’s people like Dale Carnegie and Robert Cialdini who said that every good skill can also be used for bad reasons. The only thing that helps us is our genuine desire of doing good. Otherwise, no matter how good of an actor we are, our actions are bound to betray us, and trust is something very difficult to gain once it’s lost. 


“Read people like a book”


In “Man’s search for meaning”, Viktor Frankl talks about those special prisoners who used to help others at the risk of being caught. They would go from barrack to barrack and share small portions of food or offering supporting words to those in most need of them. And all that, at the risk of being discovered and punished.

In our desire to understand the people around us and ourselves, we develop theories and principles to try and place a label on behavior.

“Read people like a book” doesn’t try to place people into small boxes, nicely labeled and ready to be understood. The idea is that it’s not all as easy as it seems. Time is not on our side, and we tend to make snap judgments about people, forgetting to take into account a lot of variables.

We forget that context, mood, background, experiences, all have an impact on our lives and make up the individual we look at in the morning. What we should avoid doing is simply discarding our humanity and dismiss a deeper level of understanding of the people around us.

One thing is for certain: it’s never as easy as it seems to label a person based on only a remote behavior or from one interaction. Even though we can get a feeling of what the other person is like, we shouldn’t be so ready to dismiss them as unimportant because we didn’t take the time to look closer.

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