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The Key to Reading People

Channel your inner detective

Today, I’ve asked Hunter Gehlbach to share his tip of the week.

After weeks of strange and elaborate explanations, our kindergartener’s long con finally crumbled. Her school politely called to say that the lunch money they had been fronting our little one would not continue. They hoped we would reconcile the debt to avoid the awkwardness of refusing to feed a 5-year-old.

This unexpected news explained why our budding con artist had been returning home with a nearly full lunch box for weeks. Her discovery that announcing her name to the cafeteria ladies could procure chocolate milk soon evolved into her obtaining complete (and tasty) school lunches. Yet, this information failed to explain how two well-educated parents—one of whom specifically studies how people perceive each other—misread their daughter so badly. We never doubted her increasingly fantastic explanations for the re-emergent (and healthy) homemade lunch.

Reading others is as challenging as it is crucial. Our daily acts of social perspective taking—figuring out others’ thoughts and feelings, perceptions and motivations—guide our behaviors towards others. They form the building blocks for all our social relationships. For the most part, we strive to read others accurately, but research indicates that two motives frequently derail us.

First, reading other people is frustratingly hard work. If you can take mental shortcuts or render a quick judgment, you often do. When our daughter told us she couldn’t eat because all her friends were talking at lunch, it sounded a little weird. But accepting her explanation required less effort than probing further.

Second, reading others entails risk. Sometimes you learn uncomfortable truths that threaten your sense of self. By not developing alternative theories, we avoided even considering what raising an ethically challenged child might say about us as parents.

So how do you avert these pitfalls? One strategy is to think like a detective: Consider multiple reasons why someone might act in a certain way, then look for evidence to support or disconfirm each of those reasons. 

Suppose your kid thinks their teacher harbors a personal vendetta against them. Indulge them that the vendetta idea is possible. But then have them develop at least two competing theories and explore the evidence for and against each one: When did the teacher start acting this way? Do others receive similar treatment? 

Don’t succumb to your inner Judge Judy. Strong convictions that you know others’ thoughts and feelings based on their outward behavior may feel reassuring. But this false sense of certainty eliminates your curiosity to learn about others’ inner motivations.

Do channel Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. The process of reading others requires ongoing detective work. You’ll have to tolerate uncertainty while testing multiple theories and weighing evidence. However, as a reward for your efforts, you will reap deeper, more accurate insights into what makes others tick.

With humble curiosity about others,
Hunter

Hunter Gehlbach is a professor of education and the vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, where he also directs the PhD program. He also serves as the senior research advisor at Panorama Education.