How to Read People
Do you ever wonder how people really feel? Even if they’re saying something different? Learning how to read people can lead to greater happiness at work, in your love life, and improve your emotional intelligence. How can you tell what someone is truly feeling? Luckily, you have a window into their soul: their face.
Believe it or not, every thought and feeling that we have flashes across our face before we’re even aware of it. Most people learn, at an early age, how to put their “masks” back on quickly when unintended expressions slip through. But if you know how to read someone, you can still understand them — sometimes even better than they understand themselves.
Why are faces such a source of truth? Your face is the only place in your entire body where your muscles are attached directly to your skin. Fleeting feelings, stray thoughts, and even subconscious core beliefs will all reveal themselves through our facial expressions. The art of reading people is not just decoding body language, it’s learning how to decode facial expressions too.
Today’s podcast will help you learn how! My guest is author and researcher Dr. Dan Hill. Dr. Hill is the author of nine books, including “Emotionomics,” and a pioneer in the use of facial coding. Besides having spoken to audiences in over 25 countries, Dan has had media appearances ranging from ABC’s Good Morning, America, to NBC’s The Today Show, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ESPN, and was also a regular guest on PBS’s Mental Engineering show. His advice has also been featured in The New York Times.
And today, he’s here to share his insights about reading people with you.
Listen to this episode to learn…
- The science behind understanding emotions
- The importance of understanding others in building relationships and connecting with others.
- How to decipher emotions using facial coding — the beginning of knowing how to read people.
- How to hone your emotional intelligence.
Tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or listen right here. Show notes are below, and you’ll find a full transcript at the bottom of this post. Follow up questions or comments for myself or Dr. Hill? Join the conversation in the comments section!
All the best,
How To Read People: Episode Highlights
In our interview, Dr. Hill explained that 95 percent of our mental activity is not fully conscious. Because most of our brain activity is not known to us, it debunks the paradigm that we are in total control of the thoughts and emotions that pass through our heads. He added that our faces provide a wealth of information to other people, and that we’re constantly taking in data based on what we see in the faces of others.
These revelations are simultaneously humbling and liberating — they confirm that we don’t need to pretend to be someone we aren’t. “We are who we are, and accept it. Try to learn from it. Don’t just give in to it necessarily,” Dan says. You might have emotional blind spots, but gaining awareness of them will help you learn how to read people better.
The Art of Reading People
Charles Darwin found that the face is the only human body part where the muscles attach directly to the skin. Interestingly, human beings have more facial muscles than any other species. While some triggers might differ based on cultural context, there are also some universalities. Dr. Hill observed these similarities in his travels around the world.
Dr. Paul Ekman conducted a study where he showed photographs to people in New Guinea and had them identify the emotions in their subjects. But emotions aren’t that simple. There exist 23 expressions that reveal our seven basic emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt. But photos can’t capture the nuances of all of them. When it comes to the art of reading people, Dr. Hill says, “It’s simple, but it’s not that simple. Because to be that simple would be ridiculous.”
Out of the seven basic emotions, six are core emotions that serve as our fundamental emotional building blocks. So emotional intelligence has three steps:
- Perceiving emotions in oneself and others
- Understanding the emotions
- Putting them together and managing the emotions
Emotional intelligence and understanding how to read people starts with perception. Often, we get so caught up in our own inner experiences, and fail to pick up on other people’s emotions. Facial coding offers us a window into the emotional experiences of others so that we can understand how they’re feeling and respond appropriately.
Reading People: The Connection Between Words and Emotions
Reading people doesn’t stop when you’re able to surmise what a person is thinking or feeling. To understand why they’re feeling specific emotions, it helps to ask questions and find behavioral patterns. Understanding facial expressions is not the end; it’s merely a tool for reading people and connecting to what they’re feeling. It can also help address what Dr. Hill calls the “feel gap,” or the chasm that opens up between ourselves and others when we feel one thing but say another. By becoming aware of it, we can better connect with people and help ourselves and others in becoming emotionally healthy.
In his research, Dr. Hill places the link between what people say and what they’re feeling into four possible categories:
- What is said is what is felt.
- What is said has some distance from what is felt.
- What is said is not what is felt.
- What is said is in complete contrast with what is felt.
Out of all the categories, the first one is the least common, according to Dr. Hill’s research. Understandably, some words don’t match up with emotions. We all work to get along with others and avoid conflicts, after all. Essentially, our motivations are to feel good about ourselves. We want to attract others romantically, platonically, and professionally, and sometimes that means “smoothing things over” by not expressing exactly how we feel.
How to Tell When Someone is Lying
In a cover story from National Geographic, Dr. Hill remembers that 40 percent of all people tell five lies per day. These aren’t white lies either; they’re deceptions with substance, with real consequences. Dan dislikes the implications of that statistic, but says, “…mostly I try to be intrigued by it and say, ‘How can I do better? How can I understand this? How can I accept my fundamental humanity and accept that of the people I’m talking to?” For more on this topic, check out “Being Honest With Yourself.”
Communication Tip: Don’t Confront Directly (h3)
When you learn how to read people by picking up on facial cues, you’ll begin to observe contradictions between what people say and what they seem to feel. Think carefully about what you do with this information, as approaching it head-on with the person might not be helpful. The person you’re talking to might feel embarrassed when you point it out. They might be actively trying to hide it, or they may not even be aware of the contradiction.
On this point, Dr. Hill quotes Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant, lest everyone go blind.” It’s best not to directly “call out” the person, or to push them to explore that emotion along with you. It’s much better to let them connect the dots themselves, rather than telling them directly that their stated feelings don’t seem to match up with their expressions, which might seem like an attempt to tell them what they’re feeling.
People usually remember things tied to emotions. For example, when you hear something that hurts you, it sticks with you for a long time. Whether in personal or professional relationships, it’s vital to understand how to read people’s emotions, because there are real, long-lasting stakes.
Emotional Intelligence and Your Relationships
Emotional intelligence can teach you how to be more vulnerable in relationships, which can lead to closer connections, more satisfying bonds, improved leadership skills, and more.
When you know how to read people, you can pick up cues that could make or break relationships. For example, decoding a smirk of contempt can help people in the business industry know if they are respected. For married couples, a smirk of contempt can be an early warning sign that the relationship is in trouble.
These underlying emotions, when undetected and unaddressed, can even create financial headaches — contempt destroys respect and trust, which can erode business relationships over time. Ultimately, decoding those emotions leads you to be honest with yourself while forging stronger connections with others.
When coaching a CEO, Dr. Hill encourages vulnerability. It can sometimes feel risky, but the result is better relationships between leaders and employees.
While there are many success stories about the benefits of learning how to read people, decoding emotions isn’t a sure-fire thing. As Dr. Hill states, “You don’t make a hit every time, and you do have to live with that.” Part of emotional intelligence is not beating yourself or the other party up when feelings get messy or difficult to decipher.
When we’re trying to read people, it’s easy to project our own feelings onto others, a habit that impedes understanding and can be corrosive to relationships. Dr. Hill suggests two paths to avoiding emotional projection.
First, ask yourself, “Am I making assumptions about other people’s behaviors?” Asking this question helps you avoid assumptions about someone else’s feelings.
Second, be open to new information. Even if someone has a habit of slipping into a particular emotional state, it does more harm than good to assume that an emotion or expression is a person’s default and that it’s what is always going on under the surface. To break free from this habit, work on cultivating empathy and curiosity about others.
Controlling Your Own Facial Expressions
Dr. Hill says he doesn’t consciously shift his facial expressions when he’s talking to people. Once he entered this field, he decided he wouldn’t review his tapes to preserve his emotional authenticity and avoid manipulation. Dan sees facial coding as a tool for reading people, and he wants to use it faithfully. He was also interested in restoring humanity to the business world and encouraging better treatment for employees, clients, and colleagues.
The Emotional Advantage
Cultivating emotional intelligence is more than an interesting hobby. It gives us real-world advantages at work, in romantic relationships, in friendships, and even with baristas or grocery store clerks. These little advantages add up to an improved quality of life, which Dr. Hill says, based on research, can actually be quantified as an overall six percent advantage. No kidding!
If six percent doesn’t sound like much, consider that sports stars like Serena Williams are only a percentage point or two better than other top competitors. When it makes the difference between winning and losing, six percent becomes a pretty meaningful advantage.
Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence isn’t fixed; it’s a skill that we can improve over time, in part by learning how to read people. Being intelligent is fantastic, but unless IQ is paired with some EQ, it’s hard to leverage those smarts to make positive change in the world.
While earning his Ph.D., Dr. Hill took a teaching course. He didn’t like that the course focused purely on IQ without any regard for EQ. It didn’t teach him how to connect with students on an emotional level, a skill that would make any teacher far more effective than simply being smart.
As the teaching example illustrates, “soft skills” like the ability to read people often get ahead at work and beyond.
- Get Dr. Dan Hill’s books, “Famous Faces Decoded” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” on his website.
- Improve Emotional Intelligence (Podcast)
- The music in this episode is Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las from their album “Worship the Sun.” You can support them and their work by visiting their website.
Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.
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Music in this episode is “Nothing to Hide” by Allah-Las.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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