There are steps you can take to improve your ability to understand others.
Q: I’m not very good at reading people. I think people are being rude when they’re shy, obnoxious when they’re just trying to get their point across, etc. How can I get better at interpreting people’s behavior? — Derek, 45, director of business strategy
A: Look at patterns in your interpretations while also developing new skills.
First, reflect on how you interpret others’ behavior. Based on your question, it seems that you tend to take a negative view of those around you. In addition to misreading people, this can have other consequences in terms of difficulty in forming positive relationships and creeping cynicism.
If, upon consideration, you find you are fairly balanced in your view of people, delve into why some behaviors or individuals trigger these negative interpretations. Often we tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people like us; for example, similar in age, sex, race, etc.
This may be uncomfortable to consider; however, it’s essential to determine any biases that may be driving your attitudes. Let’s face it — we all have life experiences and characteristics that shape our point of view. If we remain unconscious of them, we risk doing harm to the people around us. And we also become less effective in our roles as a leader and colleague.
Regardless of the extent or origins of your reactions to people, there are steps you can take to improve your ability to understand people. These fall within the realm of building emotional intelligence.
One theme is to build your own self-awareness. This touches on awareness of biases, as mentioned above, and also taps into understanding other forms of triggers. For example, if you were raised in a conflict-avoidant household, you may negatively interpret push back on a factual point or strategy direction.
Also build emotional literacy in terms of understanding a more subtle range of emotions. If you define all emotions within narrow bands of good or bad, frightening or comfortable, you won’t have the vocabulary to accept other emotional expressions as valid or useful.
Then, practice developing other interpretations of events. It’s helpful to start by analyzing past experiences. For example, take a situation in which you thought someone was rude. Then make a list of all the other possible interpretations. For example, she is reserved, was nervous in a new situation, was tired, was frustrated by something else; you get the idea.
Moving forward, start building in time before you respond to a situation so that your default reaction doesn’t show up. Think about the positive interpretations you could make, and notice if your reaction is out of sync with others.
You are forming a new habit, so expect it to take time. Build in personal check-ins daily or weekly to see how you’re doing. And find someone to support you in this so that you can get a broader perspective on your progress.
Submit questions to Liz Reyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.