If you think you are good at stakeholder types and communication preferences, move on to the next level. Can you become a mind reader?
As a consultant, many times I need to read people, not just what they say, but who they are and what is ‘going on inside’. Interpreting verbal and non-verbal cues, I want to see the real person. For my analytics (hello IT!), knowing a stakeholder’s general style is a great start, but won’t tell you the whole story, especially the context of your current interaction. You must advance to other vital forms of information and learn to read the important non-verbal, subtle and intuitive cues that people give off. To do this, you have to release old pre-conceptions or baggage, such as resentments or ego clashes, that stop you from seeing someone clearly.
The key is to remain objective and receive information neutrally without distorting it. Like having an out of body experience, but not. Nothing is 100% predictable, especially when dealing with people, but if you know who you are dealing with (step 1) then honing in on subtle changes in language, body movement and facial expression can tell you volumes about what is going on behind the scenes.
STEP 1: Don’t just look, learn how to watch.
This isn’t easy. At first, I felt really nosy. To really watch someone, you may need to learn how to stop talking (Hello Expressives, I’m looking at you). What do you notice naturally if you take the time to observe – Are they fidgety? Do they look tired? Are they naturally introverted or extroverted? How is what they are ‘doing’ different than what they are saying? Do they make eye contact? All of this will start to prime you for the next phase. Observation is a powerful tool, but in our manic business and personal lives, it is hard to stop moving long enough to master it as a skill. If you start to consciously observe people in meetings, in the hallway, at their desk, you will find the analysis step comes naturally. But the first thing is giving yourself permission and then taking the time and having a mindful approach to observing their behaviour, expressions, appearance, presence and body language (physical movement, posture). Research has shown that words account for only seven percent of how we communicate whereas our body language (55 percent) and voice tone (30 percent) represent the rest.
STEP 2: Figure out what is going on.
Context is king. Here are three things to get you closer to being a Jedi Mind Reader:
- Establish Body Language Baseline and Variance. After observing a person’s habits over time and establishing a baseline, you can start to notice if things seem off or different. Has their body language changed? Are they usually the one in the meeting who is leaning forward and taking charge, but in this meeting they seem to be sitting back and not engaged? (Why do you think that is?) For instance, pacifying gestures such as the touch to the forehead or the rubbing of palms against thighs are indicators of stress too. Facial clues of distress and discomfort include the furrowing of the brow, clenching of jaws, lip compression or the tightening of face and neck muscles.
- Hone into word choice to gain insight into what people really mean – the more I pay attention and tune myself to this, the more real it has become. Not just clues as to if they are thinker or feeler (you can tell right off the bat if they ask you ‘how are you doing’ vs ‘what’s going on’, or by how they say they thought/felt about something). Level 2 is thinking about what your stakeholder wants you to know especially when self-referencing, “I won another award”, “I worked hard to achieve this”, “I decided to go with the blue one” (vs. “I just went with the blue one”). Also in your observation, try to think about not just what they want (“Pass the salt”), but how they are saying it (“Would you mind passing the salt please?”) – what can you determine by the way of speaking, the tone, the structure of the sentence? Quite a bit!
- Conversation and Meeting Dynamics. What is the direction of travel? – Do they keep pulling the conversation away from certain topics? Are they being intentionally vague? Many times this will lead to our frustration, but if we can remain objective and in the role of an observer, then we can pause and ask ourselves why. “Why is she acting this way? Why won’t she answer my question about the project funding?”
Psychology Today: Three Techniques to Read People by Judith Orloff M.D.
University of Texas: Psychological Aspects of Natural Language Use: Our Words, Ourselves by James W. Pennebaker, Matthias R. Mehl & Kate G. Niederhoffer