How to Get Better at Reading People

How to Get Better at Reading People

The lift of an eyebrow, the twitch of a lip, the wrinkling of the nose bridge. All speak volumes about a person’s intentions. For many, however, those volumes might as well be written in Latin for all the good it does them. That is a shame.

For unless you’re a hermit living alone in the woods, people are the gateway to your wants and desires.

Therefore getting a better grasp on people’s fears, needs and motivations are key to unlocking a whole host of possibilities. This, as I previously explained, goes double on the road.

After all, while at home you generally have a safety net of people you know and trust to back your play, when you’re out in the world they aren’t there, however. And so, you’ve got to rely on your own abilities and the strangers you meet.

In that case, it is vital to have a better insight into their motivations so that you can avoid trouble, know what people are really after, and understand who you can trust.

Fortunately, if you’re not good at people reading that is not the end of the world. You can get better at it. Today I’m going to discuss a few steps to doing exactly that.

Learn to understand emotions

We can’t (yet) read minds. Therefore, the best way forward is to learn to understand other people’s emotions, as for most people they’re a great deal harder to hide than thoughts. There is often emotional leakage, even when people are trying not to show you what they’re feeling.

This might be expressed as micro-expressions, which are small expressions we show before we’re able to mask them. They might occur when surprised by something, or when we think somebody isn’t paying attention to us.

For example, if you tell somebody something about your life and there is a small flash of contempt (most easily spotted by the tugging of one corner of the mouth) before they show sympathy, then you can be pretty sure something is off. Similarly, if they show disgust (wrinkling of the nose and furrowing of the brow) as you talk and they think you’re not looking, they probably don’t mean you well and aren’t hanging out with you because they like you.

Of course, you won’t recognize these for what they are if you can’t recognize the base emotions. To find out if you’re any good at that, start off by taking the Body Language Quiz at Greater Good.

This will do two things:

  1. It will give you a good guideline as to how good you are at this kind of thing. A lot of us think we’re better at this than we are, simply because we don’t get feedback on our reading attempts.

  2. Because they’ve included a useful guide to the tell-tale signs of the different emotions, you can actually learn a thing or two about how to recognize them.

Be warned, it’s tough! There are a lot of subtle differences between the emotions. If you don’t do that well, don’t despair. All it means is that you’ve got some learning ahead of you!

The best thing to do is take careful notes of the different ways emotions are expressed and then go out into the real world and actually try them out. Find a place with lots of people – perhaps a bar, a café or a plaza – and see if you can recognize the elements you saw in the quiz there.

Perhaps you can try to unobtrusively shoot short videos of people as they do things, like watch a street performance or have a conversation. Then you can take it back home and really analyze what is going on by going over the video again, comparing what you see with what you know, and even going over things in slow motion. Do this a couple of times and you’ll find yourself improving in leaps and bounds.

Happy boy

It’s about more than just emotions

Just being able to understand emotions on their own is not enough, however. You also want to come to grips with why people might be feeling them. For example, if a person you’re talking to is anxious that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worried about you or the conversation you’re having. It might be about something else, like the results of a test or a friend who is in the hospital.

Similarly, if you accuse somebody of something and they end up becoming afraid that might be because they think they’ve been caught. Alternatively, they might simply be telling the truth but be afraid that you don’t believe them.

In both cases, jumping to a conclusion can cause serious trouble. That is why it is often so hard to read people correctly. We don’t just need to understand what people are feeling, but why.

So how do you get better at that?


Practicing mindfulness will help. ‘Mindfulness’, according to Greater Good, is a moment to moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment. It has been shown that if you practice it regularly there is a whole shopping list of benefits.

These include:

  • Stress relief

  • Less worry and regret

  • Greater life satisfaction

  • Better sleep

  • Less depression and anxiety

  • And less couple stress

For this article what matters, however, is that it boost our emotional intelligence, which is a vital skill for understanding our emotions and where they come from both within ourselves and others. This, in turn, allows us to better appreciation and understand why people feel the way they do and why they do what they do.

Another benefit of mindfulness is that it gives you a better situational awareness. And that will help you notice more details around you – for example when somebody’s behavior is a bit off, or they’re exchanging loaded looks with others when they really shouldn’t be.

Finally, mindfulness will make it less likely that you’ll jump to conclusions. And that will help you pay more attention to the evidence before you while making it less likely that you’ll ignore a clue simply because it doesn’t fit with the model you’ve already got in your head.

How to become more mindful

Well, the best way is to meditate. That is a lot easier to do than you might think. There are some free audio lessons available at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Perhaps give them a try.

If that’s not really your cup of tea, then set out to do these things:

  • Monitor your breathing – this is especially important when you’re feeling emotional, as it will calm you down and allow you to take perspective.

  • Really pay attention to what you’re feeling as well as what is happening around you. Pay attention to smells, sights and sounds. Focus particularly on the ones that would normally pass underneath your conscious awareness.

  • Instead of letting yourself always get whisked away by thoughts, fears and daydreams, try to pay more attention to physical sensations. How does the fabric of your clothing feel on your body? What does the apple you’re eating actually taste like?

  • Understand that both your emotions and your thoughts come and go and are not you. You can choose to hold on to them (if they’re positive) or let them go (if they’re negative). If you can truly realize this, particularly when you’re emotional, and practice it, then it becomes much easier to take a step back and not get swept away.

  • Once you can take that step backward, you can start trying to understand where they come from. What really set off your anger, your frustration or your joy? This isn’t just a vital step in knowing how to prevent the negative emotions and promote the positive ones, but will also allow you to recognize the source of emotions in other people, as you can use yourself as a model.

  • Keep going. Becoming more mindful is a continuous process, with you occasionally doing better and occasionally doing worse. Don’t let yourself get upset by that (mindfulness is about not getting swept away by emotions, remember?). Instead, appreciate that it’s a matter of gradual improvement.

  • And remember to put down the technological gadgets. They are a massive distraction to any attempt to be mindful. How could they not be? They constantly vie for your attention with a barrage of attention grabbing apps that will eat away at any focus you might have.

And remember to use this mindfulness to get a better grasp on people’s emotions as well as why they’re feeling them.

Practice and experience are key

So what is he feeling?
So what is he feeling?

Then you just need to practice. The real way how to get better at reading people is to go out there and read them. Try throwing yourself into situations and figuring out what people really want.

Alternatively, enter situations where you know exactly what people want – like talking to a sales person or one of those people that try to get you to sign up for charity on the street – and then spend your time analyzing their body language and behavior.

Don’t worry about if they think you’re weird. You don’t need to talk to the again in the future. In fact, see if you can spot when they think you’re weird. Then you get bonus points!

Try and check

What is important here is that you keep on returning to the theory. Keep working to understand the emotions and where they come from, as well as boosting your mindfulness. This will allow you to learn faster than if you just do it all by trial and error, as well as allowing you to adjust your incorrect assumptions.

And finally, don’t be afraid to discuss what you’ve seen with other people. They might offer you new insights that you missed completely. This works particularly well if you can find other people who are good at the reading of people – perhaps because they’re naturally empathic, they’ve got a good handle on their emotional intelligence or because they spent time trying to learn it.

Comparing notes in these kinds of situations can be hugely beneficial to both of you. What is more, trying to read strangers is a great conversation starter and way to connect.

And connecting with people is half the fun of traveling. Hell, it’s half the fun of being alive!

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