It was a series of lessons in the art of reading people, all in the course of routine errands. First, there was a stop at the cosmetics counter of one of my favorite stores, as I quickly engaged in “reading” two women, and one of them was certainly reading me.
No doubt, she was reading me simultaneously – and with considerable skill.
Interpreting nonverbal cues to our advantage?
That requires staying open, listening to intuition, and of course… practice.
The woman who assisted me was sitting – straight, by the way – and she rose as soon as she noted I was approaching with a “ready to buy” stride. She looked me squarely in the eye immediately, her voice was energized when she spoke, and everything about her exuded comfort and an agreeable transaction to come.
Body Language Tells All?
Body language may not tell us everything we need to know – at least about a first encounter – but it certainly tells us a great deal.
Eye contact, stance, posture, fidgeting, nervous tics, encroaching on personal space… All provide cues we respond to, along with scent, vision, and even, potentially, sexual attraction. (How many times might we linger over a transaction when the person on the other side sends a charge through the air?)
Dr. Judith Orloff lists three techniques for reading people at Psychology Today: observing body language, relying on intuition, and a third I hadn’t considered – sensing emotional energy. Or, as Dr. Orloff reminds us, this last is what the Chinese call “chi.”
I realize that I was largely responding to the saleswoman’s energy. She was warm, open and also, smart, which was apparent as soon as she began to speak. Don’t ask me how that translated precisely, but it did; not only was she sharp, but she was funny! And for those who operate on the theory that we gravitate to people who are most like us, the other sales person was closer to my age, closer to my body type, and also of the same skin color – factors that were clearly irrelevant.
As I reflect on those few but critical moments of first impression, everything about the younger, thinner, darker woman communicated “welcome” – making her the hands-down choice for a personal interaction.
Intuition: Don’t Ignore It
We shouldn’t ignore Dr. Orloff’s mention of intuition. It’s that gut feel or sixth sense that we can’t quite put a finger on, but it’s often a physical response – either positive or negative.
In case you want a precise definition, intuition is defined as
a perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; a keen and quick insight…
A keen and quick insight. I love that phrase – ambiguous, yet exactly what intuition is for me, and a reminder that it is valuable information and not to be dismissed.
Don’t we use intuition as a warning system or a green light? Don’t we often wish we listened to that intuition when we ignore it?
Just a half hour later on the same excursion, another sales person nabbed me following a routine product inquiry. His style was very different – informative, unafraid of a sarcastic exchange, and he was a toucher – not in an offensive way.
I can only think he was reading me… and exceptionally well at that. Surely his intuition told him I was an interested buyer; he was reading my stance, my eye contact, my hand gestures and no doubt, the urgency in my questions.
Reading the Longer Book
These are simplistic examples when it comes to the art of reading people. In both, the necessity of my getting a good read was far less important than the other way around. Sizing up a prospect (and adjusting communication accordingly) is a critical skill to anyone who hopes for a successful career sales.
Experts tell us there may still be cues – verbal and non-verbal – if we know what to look for. And this is where words can be key. As helpful as body language is, its secrets can be acquired and perfected, while aspects of the way we speak may give away more than we realize.
What about scenarios of longer duration, where we must judge honesty, reliability and intentions? What about reading your relationship partner for meaning behind the words? Is this the longer book we attempt to make our way through – with its very different investment in time, not to mention impact?
When is it in our own best interest to drop our practiced public personas and become more easily read by someone else? Was the cosmetic saleswoman more successful because her demeanor was incredibly open?
Relationships Are About Gut
Though I would never say that body language or energy reveals everything we need to know in a relationship, the ability to read people is an incredible advantage. Whether it is the slight quiver in a voice or the drumming of fingers in impatience, sensing who we are with and how they are responding to us provides incredibly useful information.
The gifted diagnostician “reads” a patient as well as medical reports. The talented lover “reads” his partner through all kinds of intimate signs. The empathetic spouse reads his wife’s fatigue, even if she says she doesn’t mind homework duty with the kids after a particularly grueling day at the office.
The effective sales person knows his or her own body language, and is adept at reading her prospect.
I could fall back on cliché: I often say I’m an open book, but that’s only true in certain circumstances. Another cliché: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Always a helpful principle, don’t you think? Yet we are none of us entirely one thing or another; the luxury of time can be most helpful of all.
And the bottom line: We are wise to allow intuition to kick in at any stage of any relationship, we are foolish to ignore red flags, and we can learn techniques to read each other more accurately – refining our ability to trust our own assessments. The observational factors I utilize most: eye contact, tone of voice, word choice, overall confidence, and energy.
One thing we don’t ever want to forget? The more significant the consequences, the more important it is to master the art of reading others.
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