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Chapter04: SEE PEOPLE AS THEY ARE: SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE
Often the greatest obstacle to our pursuit of mastery comes from the emotional drain we experience in dealing with the resistance and manipulations of the people around us. If we are not careful, our minds become absorbed in endless political intrigues and battles. The principal problem we face in the social arena is our naïve tendency to project onto people our emotional needs and desires of the moment. We misread their intentions and react in ways that cause confusion or conflict. Social intelligence is the ability to see people in the most realistic light possible. By moving past our usual self-absorption, we can learn to focus deeply on others, reading their behavior in the moment, seeing what motivates them, and discerning any possible manipulative tendencies. Navigating smoothly the social environment, we have more time and energy to focus on learning and acquiring skills. Success attained without this intelligence is not true mastery, and will not last.
In 1718, Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) went to work as an apprentice in his brother James’s printing shop in Boston. His dream was to transform himself into a great writer. At the printing shop he would not only be taught how to handle the machines, but also how to edit manuscripts. Surrounded by books and newspapers, he would have plenty of examples of good writing to study and learn from. It would be the perfect position for him.
As the apprenticeship progressed, the literary education he had imagined for himself came to pass, and his writing skills improved immensely. Then, in 1722, it seemed that he would finally have the perfect opportunity to prove himself as a writer—his brother was about to launch his own large-scale newspaper called The New-England Courant. Benjamin approached James with several interesting ideas for stories he could write, but to his great disappointment, his brother was not interested in his contributing to the new paper. This was a serious venture, and Benjamin’s work was too immature for The Courant.
Benjamin knew it was pointless to argue with James; he was a very stubborn young man. But as he thought about the situation, an idea suddenly came to him: what if he were to create a fictional character who would write letters to The Courant? If he wrote them well enough, James would never suspect they were from Benjamin, and he would print them. In this way, he would have the last laugh. After much thinking, he decided upon the perfect character to create: a young female widow named Silence Dogood who had lots of strong opinions about life in Boston, many of them rather absurd. To make this believable, Benjamin spent long hours imagining a detailed past for her. He thought so deeply into the character that she began to come alive within him. He could hear her way of thinking, and soon there emerged a very realistic writing voice all her own.
He sent the first, rather lengthy letter to The Courant and watched with amusement as his brother published it and added a note in the newspaper asking for more letters from her. James probably suspected it was the work of some established writer in town using a pseudonym—the letter was so witty and satirical—but he clearly had no idea it was from Benjamin. James continued publishing the subsequent letters, and they quickly became the most popular part of The Courant.
Benjamin’s responsibilities at the shop began to grow, and he proved to be quite an adept editor for the newspaper as well. Feeling proud of all his precocious achievements, one day he could not help himself—he confessed to James that he was the author of the Dogood letters. Expecting some praise for this, he was surprised by James’s vitriolic response—his brother did not like being lied to. To make matters worse, over the next few months he turned increasingly cold and even abusive to Benjamin. It soon became impossible to work for him, and by the fall of 1723, feeling somewhat desperate, Benjamin decided to flee Boston, turning his back on brother and family.
After several weeks of wandering he ended up in Philadelphia, determined to settle there. He was only seventeen, with virtually no money and no contacts, but for some reason he felt full of hope. In the five years working for his brother he had learned more about the business than men twice his age. He was fiercely disciplined and ambitious. And he was a talented and successful writer to boot. With no more limitations on his freedom, Philadelphia would be his to conquer. Surveying the scene in his first few days there, his confidence only increased. The two printing shops in town at the time were well below the level of anything in Boston, and the writing in the local papers was abysmal. This meant endless opportunities to fill a void and make his way.
Sure enough, within a few weeks he managed to secure a position at one of the two printing shops in town, owned by a man named Samuel Keimer. Philadelphia was still relatively small and provincial at the time—word spread quickly of the newcomer and his literary skills.
The governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Keith, had ambitions of transforming Philadelphia into a cultural center, and was not happy with the two established printing businesses. Hearing of Benjamin Franklin and of his writing talent, he sought him out. Clearly impressed with the young man’s intelligence, he urged him to start his own printing shop, promising to lend him the initial amount that was needed to get the business going. The machines and materials would have to come from London, and Keith advised him to go there personally to supervise the acquisition. He had contacts there and would bankroll it all.
Franklin could hardly believe his good fortune. Only a few months earlier he was a menial apprentice to his brother. Now, thanks to the generous and enterprising governor, he would soon have his own printing business, and through it he could start a newspaper and become a leading voice in the city, all before he turned twenty. As he made his plans for London, the money Keith had promised as a loan was not forthcoming, but after writing to him a few times, word finally came from the governor’s office not to worry—letters of credit would be waiting for him once he disembarked in England. And so, without explaining to Keimer what he was up to, he quit his job and bought his passage for the transatlantic journey.
When he got to England there were no letters waiting. Feeling there must have been some kind of miscommunication, he frantically looked in London for a representative of the governor to whom he could explain their agreement. In his search he came upon a wealthy merchant from Philadelphia who, hearing his story, revealed to him the truth—Governor Keith was a notorious talker. He was always promising everything to everyone, trying to impress people with his power. His enthusiasm for a scheme would rarely last more than a week. He had no money to lend, and his character was worth about as much as his promises.
As Franklin took this all in and considered his current predicament, what disturbed him was not that he now found himself in a precarious position—alone and without money, far from home. There was no place more exciting for a young man than London, and he would somehow make his way there. What bothered him was how badly he had misread Keith and how naïve he had been.
Fortunately, London was teeming with large-scale printing shops, and within a few weeks of his arrival he found a position within one of them. To forget about the Keith fiasco he threw himself into the work, quickly impressing his employer with his dexterity with the various machines and with his editing skills. He got along well enough with his colleagues, but soon he encountered a strange British custom: five times a day his fellow printers would take a break to drink a pint of beer. It fortified them for the work, or so they said. Every week Franklin was expected to contribute to the beer fund for those in the room, including himself, but he refused to pay up—he did not like to drink during working hours, and the idea that he should give up a part of his hard-earned wages for others to ruin their health made him angry. He spoke honestly about his principles, and they politely accepted his decision.
Over the ensuing weeks, however, strange things began to happen: mistakes kept popping up in texts he had already proofread, and almost every day he noticed some new error for which he was blamed. He started to feel like he was losing his mind. If this continued any longer he would be fired. Clearly, somebody was sabotaging his work, and when he complained to his fellow printers, they attributed it all to a mischievous ghost who was known to haunt the room. Finally figuring out what this meant, he let go of his principles and contributed to the beer fund; the mistakes suddenly disappearing along with the ghost.
After this incident and several other indiscretions in London, Franklin began to seriously wonder about himself. He seemed hopelessly naïve, constantly misreading the intentions of the people around him. Thinking about this problem, he was struck by an apparent paradox: when it came to his work, he was supremely rational and realistic, always looking to improve himself. With his writing, for instance, he could see his weaknesses clearly and practiced hard to overcome them. But with people it was virtually the opposite: he would inevitably become swept up in his emotions and lose all contact with reality. With his brother, he wanted to impress him by revealing his authorship of the letters, totally unaware of the envy and malevolence he would unleash; with Keith, he was so wrapped up in his dreams that he paid no attention to obvious signs that the governor was all talk; with the printers, his anger blinded him to the fact that they would obviously resent his attempts at reform. What was worse, he seemed incapable of changing this self-absorbed dynamic.
Determined to break this pattern and change his ways, he decided there was only one solution: in all of his future interactions with people, he would force himself to take an initial step backward and not get emotional. From this more detached position, he would focus completely on the people he was dealing with, cutting off his own insecurities and desires from the equation. Exercising his mind this way every time, it would turn into a habit. In imagining how this would work, he had a strange sensation. It reminded him of the process he went through in creating the Dogood letters—thinking inside the character he had created, entering her world, and making her come alive in his mind. In essence, he would be applying this literary skill to everyday life. Gaining position inside people’s minds, he could see how to melt their resistance or thwart their malevolent plans.
To make this process foolproof, he decided he would also have to adopt a new philosophy: complete and radical acceptance of human nature. People possess ingrained qualities and characters. Some are frivolous like Keith, or vindictive like his brother, or rigid like the printers. There are people like this everywhere; it has been that way since the dawn of civilization. To get upset or try to alter them is futile—it will only make them bitter and resentful. Better to accept such people as one accepts the thorns on a rose. Better to observe and accumulate knowledge on human nature, as one accumulates knowledge in the sciences. If he could follow this new path in life, he would rid himself of his terrible naïveté and bring some rationality to his social relations.
After more than a year and a half of work in London, Franklin finally saved enough money for his return journey to the colonies, and in 1727 he found himself back in Philadelphia, looking once more for work. In the midst of his search, his former employer, Samuel Keimer, surprised him by offering Franklin a nice position in the printing shop—he would be in charge of the staff and training the others Keimer had recently hired as part of his expanding business. For this he would receive a nice yearly salary. Franklin accepted, but almost from the beginning he could sense something was not right. And so, as he had promised himself, he took a step back and calmly reviewed the facts.
He had five men to train, but once he accomplished this task there would be little work left over for him. Keimer himself had been acting strangely—much friendlier than usual. He was an insecure and prickly gentleman, and this friendly front did not fit him. Imagining the situation from Keimer’s perspective, he could sense that he must have greatly resented Franklin’s sudden departure for London, leaving him in the lurch. He must have seen Franklin as a young whippersnapper who needed his comeuppance. He was not the type to discuss this with anyone, but would seethe from within and scheme on his own. Thinking in this way, Keimer’s intentions became clear to him: he was planning to get Franklin to impart his extensive knowledge of the business to the new employees, then fire him. This would be his revenge.
Certain he had read this correctly, he decided to quietly turn the tables. He used his new managerial position to build relationships with customers and to connect with successful merchants in the area. He experimented with some new manufacturing methods he had learned in England. When Keimer was away from the shop, he taught himself new skills such as engraving and ink-making. He paid close attention to his pupils, and carefully cultivated one of them to be a first-rate assistant. And just when he suspected that Keimer was about to fire him, he left and set up his own shop—with financial backing, greater knowledge of the business, a solid base of customers who would follow him everywhere, and a first-rate assistant whom he had trained. In executing this strategy, Franklin noticed how free he was from any feelings of bitterness or anger toward Keimer. It was all maneuvers on a chessboard, and by thinking inside Keimer he was able to play the game to perfection, with a clear and level head.
Over the ensuing years, Franklin’s printing business prospered. He became a highly successful newspaper publisher, a best-selling writer, a scientist renowned for his experiments with electricity, and an inventor of such things as the Franklin stove (and later in his life that of the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and so on). As an increasingly prominent member of the Philadelphia community, in 1736 he decided it was time to take his career further and enter politics, becoming a delegate to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature. Within a few months he was chosen unanimously by fellow members to serve as the clerk to the legislature, a position of some influence. But when it was time to renew the appointment, a new member of the legislature, Isaac Norris, suddenly voiced his vehement opposition, supporting another candidate. After much heated debate Franklin won the vote, but in contemplating the situation, he saw danger on the horizon.
Norris was a wealthy, well-educated, and charismatic businessman. He was also ambitious and certain to rise within the ranks. If Franklin became antagonistic toward him, as would be expected after what had happened with the battle over the clerk position, he would confirm any unpleasant notions Norris had entertained of him and convert him into an implacable foe. On the other hand, if he ignored him, Norris might read this as an example of Franklin’s haughtiness and hate him all the more. To some it might seem to be the strong and manly thing to go on the attack and fight back, proving he was not someone to mess with. But would it not be infinitely more powerful to work against Norris’s expectations and subtly convert him into an implacable ally?
And so Franklin went to work. He observed the man closely in the legislature, gathered information from insiders, and thought himself deeply into Norris’s mind. He came to the conclusion that Norris was a proud and somewhat emotional young man who harbored a few insecurities as well. He seemed impatient for attention, for being liked and admired by others; perhaps he envied Franklin’s popularity and achievements. Through his insiders, he learned that Norris had one rather odd obsession—an extensive personal library containing many rare books, including one that was particularly rare and that he prized above all others. These books seemed to represent to him his own feelings of distinction and nobility.
Knowing all of this, Franklin decided upon the following course of action: he wrote to Norris a very polite note, expressing admiration for his collection. He was an avid book lover himself, and hearing so much about that one rare book in Norris’s collection, he would be excited beyond belief if he could somehow peruse it at his leisure. If Norris would lend it to him for a few days, he would take great care of it and return it promptly.
Clearly pleased by this attention, Norris sent the book over right away and Franklin returned it as promised, with another note expressing his gratitude for the favor. At the next meeting of the legislature, Norris came up to Franklin and engaged him in friendly conversation, something he had never done before. As he had predicted, he had created doubt in Norris’s mind. Instead of his suspicions being confirmed about Franklin, he was confronted with the fact that the man behaved as a true gentleman, shared his interest in rare books, and kept to his word. How could he continue to harbor bad feelings without wondering about himself and why he had sent the book? Playing on Norris’s emotional nature, Franklin shifted his feelings from antagonism to warmth. They became close friends and then staunch political allies to the end of their careers. (Franklin would go on to practice similar magic on many of his future political foes.) In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was thought of as the quintessence of the trustworthy merchant and citizen. Like his fellow townsfolk, he dressed plainly; he worked harder than anyone they knew; he never frequented bars or gambling houses; and he had a folksy and even humble manner. His popularity was almost universal. But in the last public chapter of his life, he acted in a way that seemed to indicate that he had changed and lost his common touch.
In 1776, a year after the outbreak of the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin—now a distinguished political figure—was dispatched to France as a special commissioner to obtain arms, financing and an alliance. Soon stories spread throughout the colonies of his various intrigues with French women and courtesans, and of his attendance at lavish parties and dinners—much of which was true. Prominent politicians such as John Adams accused him of becoming corrupted by the Parisians. His popularity among Americans plummeted. But what the critics and public did not realize was that wherever he went he assumed the look, the outward morals, and the behavior of the culture at hand, so that he could better make his way. Desperate to win the French over to the American cause and understanding their nature quite well, he had transformed himself into what they had wanted to see in him—the American version of the French spirit and way of life. He was appealing to their notorious narcissism.
All of this worked to perfection—Franklin became a beloved figure to the French, and a man of influence with their government. In the end, he brokered an important military alliance and gained the kind of financing nobody else could have wrested from the stingy French king. This final public act in his life was not an aberration, but the ultimate application of his social rationality.
KEYS TO MASTERY
You must allow everyone the right to exist in accordance with the character he has, whatever it turns out to be: and all you should strive to do is to make use of this character in such a way as its kind of nature permits, rather than to hope for any alteration in it, or to condemn it offhand for what it is. This is the true sense of the maxim—Live and let live…. To become indignant at [people’s] conduct is as foolish as to be angry with a stone because it rolls into your path. And with many people the wisest thing you can do, is to resolve to make use of those whom you cannot alter .
We humans are the preeminent social animal. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our primitive ancestors developed complex social groupings. To adapt to this, they evolved mirror neurons (see introduction, here), which were more refined and sensitive than those of other primates. This meant that they could use these mirror neurons not only to imitate those around them, but also to imagine what others might be thinking and feeling, all on a preverbal level. Such empathy allowed for a higher degree of cooperation.
With the invention of language and the reasoning powers it brought them, our ancestors could take this empathic ability further—seeing patterns in people’s behavior and deducing their motivations. Over the years, these reasoning skills have become infinitely more powerful and refined. In theory, all of us today possess the natural tools—empathy, rational thinking—to have a supreme understanding of our fellow humans. In practice, however, these tools remain mostly undeveloped, and the explanation for this can be found in the peculiar nature of our childhood, and our extended period of dependency.
Compared to other animals, we humans enter the world remarkably weak and helpless. We remain relatively weak for many years before we can truly operate on our own. This extended period of immaturity, lasting some twelve to eighteen years, serves a valuable function: it gives us a chance to focus on developing our brain—by far the most important weapon in the human arsenal. But this prolonged childhood comes with a price. During this time of weakness and dependency, we experience the need to idealize our parents. Our survival depends on their strength and reliability. To think of them as having their own frailties would fill us with unbearable anxiety. And so we inevitably see them as stronger, more capable, and more selfless than they are in reality. We come to view their actions through the lens of our needs, and so they become extensions of ourselves.
During this long period of immaturity, we often transfer these idealizations and distortions to teachers and friends, projecting onto them what we want and need to see. Our view of people becomes saturated with various emotions—worship, admiration, love, need, anger. Then inevitably, often in adolescence, we start to glimpse a less-than-noble side to many people, including our parents, and we cannot help but feel upset at the disparity between what we had imagined and the reality. In our disappointment, we tend to exaggerate their negative qualities, much as we once had exaggerated the positive ones. If we had been forced earlier on in life to make it on our own, practical needs would have come to dominate our thinking, and we would have become more detached and realistic. But as it is, the many years of viewing people through the lens of our emotional needs turns into a habit that we can hardly control.
Let us call this the Naïve Perspective. Although it is natural to have such a perspective because of the unique character of our childhood, it is also dangerous because it envelops us in childish illusions about people, distorting our view of them. We carry this perspective with us into the adult world, into the Apprenticeship Phase. In the work environment the stakes are suddenly raised. People are no longer struggling for good grades or social approval, but for survival. Under such pressure, they reveal qualities of their characters that they normally try to conceal. They manipulate, compete, and think of themselves first. We are blindsided by this behavior and our emotions are churned up even more than before, locking us into the Naïve Perspective.
The Naïve Perspective makes us feel sensitive and vulnerable. Looking inward as to how the words and actions of others implicate us in some way, we continually misread their intentions. We project our own feelings onto them. We have no real sense of what they are thinking or what motivates them. With colleagues in the work environment, we fail to see the source of their envy or the reason for their manipulations; our attempts at influencing them are based on the assumptions that they want the same things as ourselves. With mentors and bosses, we project onto them our childhood fantasies, becoming unnecessarily adoring or fearful of authority figures and creating stormy and brittle relationships in the process. We think we understand people, but we are viewing them through a distorted lens. In this state, all of our empathic powers are rendered useless.
With the inevitable mistakes we make, we become entangled in battles and dramas that consume our minds and distract us from learning. Our sense of priorities becomes warped—we end up giving far too much importance to social and political issues because we are not handling them well. If we are not careful, we carry these patterns over to the next phase in life, the Creative-Active Phase, in which we are in a more public position. At this level, being socially inept can prove particularly embarrassing, even fatal to our careers. People who retain their childish attitudes will rarely be able to hold on to the success they may achieve through their talent.
Social intelligence is nothing more than the process of discarding the Naïve Perspective and approaching something more realistic. It involves focusing our attention outward instead of inward, honing the observational and empathic skills that we naturally possess. It means moving past our tendency to idealize and demonize people, and seeing and accepting them as they are. It is a way of thinking that must be cultivated as early as possible, during the Apprenticeship Phase. But before we can begin to acquire this intelligence we must first come to grips with the Naïve Perspective itself.
Look at the case of Benjamin Franklin, the icon of social intelligence and the clearest example of the role it plays in mastery. As the second youngest of a large extended family, he learned to get his way through charm. As he got older he came to believe, as many young people do, that getting along with others is a function of behaving charmingly and winning them over with a friendly manner. But as he engaged with the real world, he began to see his charm as the actual source of his problem. Being charming was a strategy he had developed out of childish need; it was a reflection of his narcissism, of the love he had of his own words and wit. It had no relation to other people and their needs. It did not prevent them from exploiting or attacking him. To be truly charming and socially effective you have to understand people, and to understand them you have to get outside yourself and immerse your mind in their world.
Only when he realized how deeply naïve he had been could he take the necessary steps to move past this naïveté. His focus on gaining social intelligence was the turning point of his career—it transformed him into the preeminent observer of human nature, a man with a magical ability to see into people. It also made him the perfect social companion—men and women everywhere fell under his spell because of his ability to attune himself to their energies. With tranquil and productive social relations, he could focus more of his time and attention to writing, to questions of science, to his endless inventions—to mastery.
It might be deduced from Benjamin Franklin’s story that social intelligence requires a detached, emotionless approach to people, making life rather dull in the process, but this is hardly the case. Franklin himself was by nature a very emotional man. He did not repress this nature, but rather turned his emotions in the opposite direction. Instead of obsessing over himself and what other people were not giving him, he thought deeply of how they were experiencing the world, what they were feeling and missing. Emotions seen inside other people create empathy and bring a deep understanding of what makes them tick. For Franklin, this outward focus gave him a pleasant feeling of lightness and ease; his life was hardly dull, but simply free of unnecessary battles.
Understand: you will continue to have problems in attaining social intelligence until you come to the realization that your view of people is dominated by the Naïve Perspective. Following Franklin’s example, you can reach this awareness by reviewing your past, paying particular attention to any battles, mistakes, tensions, or disappointments on the social front. If you look at these events through the lens of the Naïve Perspective, you will focus only on what other people have done to you—the mistreatments you endured from them, the slights or injuries you felt. Instead, you must turn this around and begin with yourself—how you saw in others qualities they did not possess, or how you ignored signs of a dark side to their nature. In doing this, you will be able to clearly see the discrepancy between your illusions about who they are and the reality, and the role you played in creating this discrepancy. If you look closely enough, you can often perceive in your relationships with bosses or superiors reenactments of the childhood family dynamic—the idealizing or demonizing that has become habitual.
By making yourself aware of the distorting process of the Naïve Perspective, you will naturally grow less comfortable with it. You will realize that you are operating in the dark, blind to people’s motivations and intentions, vulnerable to the same mistakes and patterns that occurred in the past. You will feel your lack of real connection to other people. The desire will naturally arise from within to change this dynamic—to start looking outward instead of focusing only on your own feelings, to observe before you react.
This new clarity about your perspective should be accompanied by an adjustment of your attitude. You must avoid the temptation to become cynical in your approach as an overreaction to your prior naïveté. The most effective attitude to adopt is one of supreme acceptance. The world is full of people with different characters and temperaments. We all have a dark side, a tendency to manipulate, and aggressive desires. The most dangerous types are those who repress their desires or deny the existence of them, often acting them out in the most underhanded ways. Some people have dark qualities that are especially pronounced. You cannot change such people at their core, but must merely avoid becoming their victim. You are an observer of the human comedy, and by being as tolerant as possible, you gain a much greater ability to understand people and to influence their behavior when necessary.
With this new awareness and attitude in place, you can begin to advance in your apprenticeship in social intelligence. This intelligence consists of two components, both equally important to master. First, there is what we shall call specific knowledge of human nature—namely the ability to read people, to get a feel for how they see the world, and to understand their individuality. Second, there is the general knowledge of human nature, which means accumulating an understanding of the overall patterns of human behavior that transcend us as individuals, including some of the darker qualities we often disregard. Because we are all a mix of unique qualities and traits common to our species, only the possession of both forms of knowledge can give you a complete picture of the people around you. Practice both forms of knowledge and they will yield invaluable skills that are essential in the quest for mastery.
Specific Knowledge—Reading People
Most of us have had the sensation at some point in our lives of experiencing an uncanny connection with another person. In such moments we have an understanding that is hard to put into words; we even feel that we can anticipate the thoughts of the other person. Such communication generally occurs with close friends and partners, people whom we trust and feel attuned to on many levels. Because we trust them, we open up to their influence and vice versa. In our normal state we are often nervous, defensive, and self-absorbed, and our minds are turned inward. But in these moments of connection, the internal monologue is shut off, and we pick up more cues and signals from the other person than usual.
What this means is that when we are not inward-directed but attending more deeply to another person, we gain access to forms of communication that are largely nonverbal in nature, and quite effective in their own way. We can imagine that our primitive ancestors, needing to cooperate on a high level yet not experiencing the kind of interior monologue that comes with words, possessed an incredibly powerful sensitivity to the moods and feelings of others within the group, bordering on telepathy. This would be similar to what other social animals possess, but in this case this sensitivity would have been heightened by our ancestor’s ability to place themselves in the minds of others.
The intense nonverbal connection we experience with those we are close to is clearly not appropriate in a work environment, but to the degree we open ourselves up and direct our attention outward to other people, we can access a part of the sensitivity that our ancestors had, and become much more effective at reading people.
To begin this process, you need to train yourself to pay less attention to the words that people say and greater attention to their tone of voice, the look in their eye, their body language—all signals that might reveal a nervousness or excitement that is not expressed verbally. If you can get people to become emotional, they will reveal a lot more. Cutting off your interior monologue and paying deep attention, you will pick up cues from them that will register with you as feelings or sensations. Trust these sensations—they are telling you something that you will often tend to ignore because it is not easy to verbalize. Later you can try to find a pattern to these signals and attempt to analyze what they mean.
On this nonverbal level, it is interesting to observe how people behave around those in positions of power and authority. They will tend to reveal an anxiety, a resentment, or a sycophantic falseness that betrays something essential about their psychological makeup, something that goes back to their childhoods and that can be read in their body language.
When you drop your defense mechanisms and pay deep attention to others, you will need to lower your guard and open yourself up to their influence as well. But as long as your emotions and empathy are directed outward, you will be able to detach yourself when necessary and analyze what you have gleaned. Resist the temptation to interpret what they say or do as somehow implicitly involving you—this will cause you to turn your thoughts inward and close off the immediacy of the connection.
As an exercise, after you have known people for a while, try to imagine that you are experiencing the world from their point of view, placing yourself in their circumstances and feeling what they feel. Look for any common emotional experiences—a trauma or difficulty you’ve had, for instance, that resembles in some way what they are going through. Reliving a part of that emotion can help you begin the identifying process. The goal is not to literally inhabit their mind, which is impossible, but to practice your empathic powers and gain a more realistic appraisal of their worldview. Being able to place yourself to any degree in the mind-set of others is a brilliant means of loosening up your own thought process, which will tend to get locked into certain ways of seeing things. Your ability to empathize with others is related to the creative process of feeling your way into the subject you are studying.
This intuitive form of reading people becomes more effective and accurate the more you use it, but it is best to combine it with other, more conscious forms of observation. For instance, you should take particular note of people’s actions and decisions. Your goal is to figure out the hidden motives behind them, which will often revolve around power. People will say all kinds of things about their motives and intentions; they are used to dressing things up with words. Their actions, however, say much more about their character, about what is going on underneath the surface. If they present a harmless front but have acted aggressively on several occasions, give the knowledge of that aggression much greater weight than the surface they present. In a similar vein, you should take special note of how people respond to stressful situations—often the mask they wear in public falls off in the heat of the moment.
When looking for cues to observe, you should be sensitive to any kind of extreme behavior on their part—for instance, a blustery front, an overly friendly manner, a constant penchant for jokes. You will often notice that they wear this like a mask to hide the opposite, to distract others from the truth. They are blustery because they are inwardly very insecure; they are overly friendly because they are secretly ambitious and aggressive; or they joke to hide a mean-spiritedness.
In general, you are reading and decoding every possible sign—including the clothes they wear and the organized or disorganized nature of their workspace. The choice of mate or partner can be quite eloquent too, particularly if it seems slightly inconsistent with the character they try to project. In this choice they can reveal unmet needs from childhood, a desire for power and control, a low self-image, and other qualities they normally seek to disguise. What might seem like small issues—chronically being late, insufficient attention to detail, not returning any favors on your part—are signs of something deeper about their character. These are patterns you must pay attention to. Nothing is too small to notice.
You must avoid the common mistake of making judgments based on your initial impressions of people. Such impressions can sometimes tell you something, but more often they are misleading. There are several reasons for this. In your initial encounter you tend to be nervous, less open, and more inward. You are not really paying attention. Furthermore, people have trained themselves to appear a certain way; they have a persona they use in public that acts like a second skin to protect them. Unless you are incredibly perceptive, you will tend to mistake the mask for the reality. For instance, the man you judged to be so powerful and assertive may be merely masking his fears and may have far less power than you first imagined. Often it is the quiet ones, those who give out less at first glance, who hide greater depths, and who secretly wield greater power.
What you want is a picture of a person’s character over time, which will give you a far more accurate sense of their true character than any first impression could. So restrain yourself from the natural tendency to judge right away, and let the passing months reveal more and more about who people are, as you get better at reading them.
In the end, your goal is to identify and pierce through to what makes people unique, to understand the character and values that lie at their cores. The more you can fathom about people’s pasts and their way of thinking about things, the more deeply you can enter into their spirit. In this way you will be able to understand their motivations, foresee their actions, and recognize how best to win them to your side. You will no longer be operating in the dark.
You will encounter thousands of various individuals in your life, and the ability to see them as they are will prove invaluable. Keep in mind, however, that people are in a state of continual flux. You must not let your ideas about them harden into a set impression. You are continually observing them and bringing your readings of them up to date.
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