None of us can fully acquire the skills to interpret other people because then we’d be mind readers. What we can improve is our ability to read other people in the sense of objectively interpreting their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.
We can, in other words, sharpen our skills. Because of our social masks, lots of the behaviour we observe, whether verbal or non-verbal, is under some sort of control. Because of this it may seem that it’s impossible to interpret what another person is thinking or what their real views are about a particular issue. In fact both emotions and attitudes tend to leak out in body language, so it’s helpful to know that non-verbal behaviour is as much a language as the spoken word.
Certain postures, gestures and expressions tend to be universal for the culture we’re brought up in. For this reason we can begin to make reasonably accurate assessments about another person if we’re tuned into body language. Even so, communication is a slippery customer. Every one of uses conscious signals like hand, arm and facial gestures to amplify or clarify our messages. Some are conscious, others less so. Some are taught, some acquired, some are highly individual. Some are used by listeners in order to regulate what the talker is saying. A listener can easily convey interest, a desire for someone to speed up, change the subject, or stop by very simple gestures.
We can improve our understanding of others’ behaviour by doing two things. First, we need to resist the temptation to make snap judgments about that person at an early stage of meeting them. Secondly, it’s better to become an active listener by encouraging the person to communicate. In this way we increase the amount of information coming our way. Active listening is a skill that can easily be developed by:
Sitting Upright and Paying Attention.
This may seem obvious but it’s surprising how many people either slump and look disinterested or are too tense. The way a listener sits has an implication for the way the speaker perceives them. Look disinterested and you may get less information. Look tense and you may make the speaker feel tense.
Ice breaking takes a few seconds but it can make a huge difference in putting a speaker at ease. Small comments relating to human fallibilities can help such as, ‘I’m always mislaying my pen,’ or ‘if I could only find my spectacles’. These disclosures are often seen by the speaker as an element of disclosure they can relate to.
Active listening sometimes means interrupting if something is unclear. I can be better to interrupt rather than let the person keep talking once you’ve lost the thread. An occasional ‘yes’ or ‘mm’ along with a smile or head nod can be used in order to encourage the speaker to press on.
Finally, our own preconceptions can hamper active listening so it’s important to acknowledge these to ourselves. Listeners all too frequently modify or interpret what is being said in ways that fit with their own views. Sometimes what a speaker says can be ignored or overlooked because it conflicts with the impression being developed of them. Sometimes we may feel irritation or anger because what the person says is inconsistent.
There’s more to active listening but let’s get back to the central issue. We learn a great deal more about others and make fewer mistakes ourselves if we try to avoid so-called interpretive errors. These include:
- Assumptions that people will behave in the same way in different situations.
- Not trying too hard to construct an image of someone. This avoids assuming they are all good, or conversely all bad. A person can be all things depending on situation and circumstance. We can all be measured yet neurotic, active yet lazy, mean but also generous.
- Not ticking the plus box simply because someone has been to the same school, comes from the same town, has a similar background or has the same social class as ourselves.
- Not assuming the other person has the same motives or drives as ourselves.
All the aforementioned are common human errors so we shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves for making them. The key is to find ways of reducing errors so that our interpretation of another person isn’t clouded by them. Forcing yourself to stay open-minded isn’t easy but if you feel negative emotions it can be worth questioning yourself as to why this is. Also, consider the pressures or influences that might be coming to bear on the other person. In interview situations , for example, it is always best to have a few people involved so that interpretations can be shared and errors minimised.
Try some of these techniques. They will help raise your consciousness of error making.
1. Next time you look at a photograph online, in a newspaper or magazine, make yourself think about your initial assumptions and the cues you are basing these on. You could well find that your attraction or repulsion is based on little more than a set of beliefs you have acquired. The more we challenge ourselves the more likely it is that we’ll become more objective in the way we interpret other people.
2. The more we stand back from ourselves the easier it becomes to see other people from a different perspective. We may laugh or scoff or deny that the actions or beliefs of another person is something we would never do or be, but is that really true? Seeing issues from another person’s perspective is a skill that can be acquired over time. It doesn’t mean you are in danger of being drawn into other people’s lives merely that empathy allows a more objective perspective.
3. Snap judgments are the enemy when it comes to objectively interpreting other people’s behaviour. We’re all prone to it but with time and effort it is quite possible to put aside those hurried assessments.
Finally, did you know that top consultants and business executives spend up to 65% of their time just listening? Some of the most effective people make the best judgments based on time, focus and subsequent evaluation. They take time to think, to reflect and balance the merits of what they’ve seen and heard. That’s something we could all learn from.