The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 16, 2011

Linda Cannon, book review: Book explains details of reading people

By Linda Cannon
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — One of my favorite television series is “Lie to Me,” so I was intrigued by the title “Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior -- Anytime, Anyplace” by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Wendy Patrick Mazzarella.

While it won’t turn you into Cal Lightman, there’s a lot of valuable information in the book. Much of it is common sense (such as people not meeting your eyes when they’re lying), but a lot of it bears repeating or is couched in a manner that helps to make things clearer and more meaningful.

Dimitrius has a Ph.D. in criminology and government and has worked as a jury consultant since 1984 on such cases as the Night Stalker (Richard Ramirez), McMartin Preschool, and Rodney King. Her co-author is a prosecutor with the San Diego, California district attorney’s office.

So, to start learning to read people the first step is to start really watching people, all the time, everywhere. If you tend to use email to communicate, at least step up to phone calls so that you can work on your voice reading skills. If you use the phone, try more face-to-face discussions to work on your voice and visual clue skills. The first chapter focuses on asking the right questions (not giving away too much information) and paying attention to responses, both verbal and nonverbal.  

The second section covers watching for patterns and breaks in them. Be alert for “rogue actions.” Someone who is habitually tidy or punctual who suddenly appears unkempt or is frequently late is saying, whether intentionally or not, something about themselves.

Next is learning to make first impressions based on physical appearance. One of the primary things to work on is watching out for deviations from the norm.

Dimitrius points out that anything unusual is key to understanding people. Look for “rogue traits” -- characteristics that don’t appear to match up with the rest of someone’s characteristics, such as a man who dresses conservatively but sports a large hoop earring or a woman who dresses dowdily but has unusually long and well-manicured fingernails. Sometimes there are mundane explanations for such things, but more often than not, it means something more important.

After that, we move on to first impressions based on body language. Body language is particularly important because while many people are very aware of what their words are telling us and are able to control that, most are not particularly aware of what their body or face are up to and it’s much harder to control those.

An obvious example would be someone whose words say that all is well, but their lips are compressed, so maybe they’re actually angry.  

Vocal mannerisms and tone can also tell a lot about a person, whether as a baseline or, again, alterations from the norm. Talking fast all of a sudden? The speaker may have just been caught in a lie. Similarly, slower than normal speech may also indicate lying, although it can also be because of fatigue, sadness or confusion.

You need to be aware of the various possibilities for variances in appearance, body language, or speech. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to tell is someone is lying or being manipulative. You have to add all the clues together to reach your best conclusion.

Communication style plays a role, as well. Dimitrius employs Linda McCallister’s six communication styles (reflectives, nobles, socratics, magistrates, candidates and senators). Developing awareness of communication styles is critical to reading people because a shift in communication style is very telling and understanding a person’s communication style can help you avoid misjudging them.

If someone’s answers are terse, it may be simply that they are a “noble.” If they are usually a chatty “reflective,” however, pay attention. Something out of the ordinary is going on.  

Dimitrius has a lot to say about the content of speech, as well. The use of profanity, exaggeration, gossiping, slang and humor can give you a lot of information about someone, depending greatly on context. Usage of slang may indicate socioeconomic status, but may also be a way of playing down one’s status to fit in.

The final sections cover reading the environment of your subject (most of which is fairly obvious), spotting exceptions to the rules, trying to read people online and what to watch for to spot possible criminals or terrorists.

If you want to understand what your co-workers, employees, boss, friends and family are really saying and are willing to put in a bit of time developing your people-reading skills, I think this would be just the ticket.