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Reading between the lines

Understanding the unsaid key to effective communication

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Time and time again, all through our educational years and into our work life, we hear about the importance of interpersonal communication. When our communication is deemed to be effective, we can quickly develop trust and respect, build teamwork, problem solve and resolve differences. On the other hand, if our communication is deemed to be ineffective, it's well known we can cause conflict and frustration. In fact, poor communication can destroy professional relationships and/or create unhealthy family dynamics.

Yet, many people think because we can talk, we are communicating. Actually, that is not the case at all. In other words, just because words leave your mouth, doesn't mean the listener really understands the message. And just because words leave someone's mouth, doesn't mean they are telegraphing you their true message.

Understanding the importance of communication skills, you'll find that most workplaces offer a variety of educational courses on the topic of communication. Typically, these courses cover content such as self-assessment, communication style, effective listening, how to ask questions, being an assertive communicator, body language and how to effectively deal with conflict.

However, one such skill I believe could use more attention in workplace educational programming is the ability to read people. Reading people isn't a matter of having a special gift. It's simply is a matter of knowing what to look for, what to listen for and recognizing clues, patterns and disconnects in how people look, act, and sound. It is these patterns and disconnections that reveal an individual's personal beliefs and values. Once you can determine these, you can predict how a person thinks, how they will respond to your communication and how they will behave in the future.

So, where does one start in the learning process for reading people? Dr. Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a highly sought after expert in jury selection has a number of suggestions for readers. These include the following:

UNDERSTAND YOURSELF FIRST -- Take time to identify what you need with respect to your friendships and work relationships. Create a mental list of what you are looking for in a successful relationship. Identify and be aware of your own personal biases and prejudices as they will affect your evaluation of others.

FOCUS ON OBJECTIVITY -- Be aware of the importance of maintaining objectivity and learn to recognize when your objectivity might be at risk. Typically, objectivity issues arise when you have to make an emotional commitment, when you feel fearful and/or feel put on the defensive. Take time to make sure you have all the facts, and avoid making a quick decision especially if you are being impacted by the situations identified above.

LOOK FOR BEHAVIOUR PATTERNS -- Start with observing two or three characteristics that stand out and are attracting your attention. Then, check against the circumstances in which the behaviour is occurring and determine if the circumstances are influencing behaviour. Does the behaviour appear to reflect a temporary state of mind and/or does it appear more permanent?

AVOID FIRST IMPRESSION JUDGMENT -- consider all the clues and look for the consistency. Identify actions that seem inappropriate and watch for behaviour that is unique or peculiar to the situation. Remember that people can willingly dress the part, so to speak.

EXAMINE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONTEXT -- A person's environment has a significant impact on values, beliefs and behaviours. Seek out clues from the work and personal environment and create a big picture of where an individual lives, works and plays. Discover the social groupings and activities the individual engages in and take note of any differences between one's public and private life.

LISTEN BETWEEN THE LINES -- Most often, when someone speaks, there are actually two dialogues going on at the same time, one includes the words used and the other is the message given by one's voice. Pay attention to vocal clues such as tone, loudness versus softness, rapid versus slow speech, mumbling versus volume versus control and non-control. Once again, keep the context in mind, but watch for both extreme and unique patterns.

ASK QUESTIONS THAT MATTER -- Ask open-ended questions that invite people to talk more about a subject and which can lead to a fruitful dialogue and conversation. An example might be, "Tell me about your upcoming vacation." Avoid questions that simply requires a yes-no response as this cuts off a conversation.

BE A GOOD LISTENER -- Plan to meet in an environment that invites conversation and allows for good listening. Be comfortable and pay attention to your own body language as you listen. Avoid interrupting, arguing and/or patronizing the speaker. Be sure to pay attention to the context surrounding the speaker's experience.

DETERMINE PERSONAL MOTIVE -- Accept the fact consciously or unconsciously, people have a motive for their communication and use specific techniques to influence their listeners. Some of the common techniques include answering a question with a question, being non-responsive, changing the subject, rambling, using slang, boasting and/or using sarcasm. Ask yourself what benefit these techniques are providing the speaker and try to determine what their motivation is.

ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS -- Each time we encounter other people, we reveal something of our character. With this in mind, observe how people treat others, how they interact with service workers versus friends, coworkers, family and children. Look for examples of honesty, personal and professional choices and self centredness. Look for consistency.

PAY ATTENTION TO WILD CARDS -- Know some things are not what they seem, which in turn can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For instance, both personal and workplace cultures will impact the nature of personal behaviour. On the other hand, some people react more to stress and pressure than usual and this will impact their behaviour. Still others deliberately develop a well-rehearsed story in order to create a good first impression. And finally, some people are simply habitual liars.

LISTEN TO YOUR INTUITION -- Search your subconscious mind and use your intuition to surface linkages and connections that help to create an image of the individuals with whom you are communicating. Pay special attention to observing people from all walks of life and developing your own personal database of linkages that help you to read people. Stay in touch with your feelings about people and compare with your internal intuitive notes.

Becoming an astute communicator is much more than understanding your communication style and how we use this to interact with others. In my view, it's all about observing, listening, identifying communication patterns and being in tune with the underlying messages that are being sent to us through various conscious and unconscious communication techniques. In other words, It's all about reading people.


Source: Reading People: How to Understand People and predict their behavior - anytime, anyplace; Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, PhD and Mark Mazzarella, Ballentyne books, 1999.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed is president of Legacy Bowes Group and president of Career Partners International, Manitoba. She can be reached at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 H1

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