Reading people

Reading people

Covid revealed a huge hole in our ability to read people, whether we are of a cooperative or a command political persuasion. From the almost-too-kindly democracy and fairness of Britain to the somewhat overbearing disciplined autocracy of China, the people on the ground made their positions crystal clear and ‘management’ largely bowed to their views. People everywhere were poor readers and were equally poorly read. It is often the case. 

Throughout the process, bosses demonstrated the difficulty they have in forecasting, the problems they face when communicating and their lack of ability to cooperate. Workers representatives showed their determination to a point where many lives were lost as a result of strikes. Other sick and damaged people suffered unnecessary pain from bad service of which every society incurring it should be thoroughly ashamed. We are poor at reading people. 

Will the same thing happen in 2023? Do we need fallen idols to learn that managers are flawed? Must humanity’s control over our destiny miss the point that we are here for a life, not just a job, and that others are here for us to engage, to learn from and to help? Reading employees is difficult. They are humans, like their managers. They are anxious, scared, greedy, intemperate. They are also creative, loving, kind and beautiful. And they are all this while vacillating between the different facets so fast that it is difficult to keep up with them. 

Of the things a Terrific Mentor-Coach has to learn, reading people is the first and most difficult. We never fully master it but we aim to improve with each step of the way. It is something everyone should learn. We are all mentors to some extent. So what is it we have to read first and most in people when we are trying to handle them?

Bona fide, for sure. None of us does anything in perfect good faith and our ‘integrity intentions’ wobble all the time. Good faith about pay is especially difficult to understand. We are all greedy to some extent and our aspirations grow with our successes. We do not have “static basic requirements”. In some countries prisoners serving tough sentences for crimes committed are entitled to television in their cells. Less than 100 years ago they were not even allowed a pencil and paper. If ‘good faith’ becomes ‘what I can screw out of you’ it has stopped being good faith. That applies to both boss and worker. And yet a competitive society demands that we compete. 

So what is at the heart of reading people well? First know your biases because you are going to have to compensate for them. If, for example, beauty prejudices you in favour of accepting the things people say, remember that your version of beauty is different from other people’s. Quite apart from the bias of believing beauty, you must recognise that to someone else a dung beetle may be more beautiful. Second, forget yourself and resist preparing your next question or statement for when they stop talking. That is your cleverness bias. We all want to be Oscar Wilde in our repartee. When reading people it backfires on you.

Third, remember that the mood and emotions of the other person are changing all the time. You can observe outward signs of fatigue and boredom but there is a lot more going on in the little grey cells of the person you are talking to than meets the eye. Your reading is continuous, not just fleeting. A good surgeon is told to Look, Listen then Feel. Somewhat the same process is needed to read people, though the ‘feel’ part should certainly be restrained.

When you have acquired the skill of reading people you can turn to the tricky subject of communicating with them. We call that “Sum it up, Spit it out, Make it stick”. 

But only after you are sure you can read the target. 

Good morning

John Bittleston 

If you’d like to learn more about reading people, or do the qualifying test (free!), please drop me a line. We would love to hear your views at

12 January 2023