Beyond the Words: 3 Steps in Reading People

We wordsmiths write to make efforts to reach each other – to play with words, sculpt them and mold them to our uses. Then, as intelligent human persons, we know that much of huamn communication is nonverbal. For me, as a drug and alcohol counselor with homeless people, trying to get them to tell me things they don’t really want to tell me, non-verbal communication is sometimes as important as verbal.

There are several little tricks that I employ*

1. I watch for the little expressions they try to hide. Do they avert their eyes, those windows to the soul? Do the muscles in their face twitch at all?

For example, when I ask my clients if they’ve used, there’s a split second when they (often, but not always) make a face, and they’re all very similar: They avert their eyes, downwards and to the sides, and they smile very slightly. An embarassed smile. All I have to do (usually) is ask the question and I often see the face immediately, answering my question. (Of course, I check in with my assumption, but it’s usually right.)

2. Watch their body.  Are their actions logical to what’s going on around them? Do they refuse to look at me? Are they deliberately standing close to me?

One time, during lunch (which we serve to anyone in the community), a big man walked in the center, bypassing the desk, and walked to one of the back tables.  He was very focused on his goal, though I couldn’t tell what it was yet. Something wasn’t right, though. His body was tense and he was ignoring every around him.

Focused Man walked to another man sitting by himself.  Focused Man leaned over the table and into Eating Man’s face, baring his teeth and growling at him.  Eating Man flew backwards off his seat away from Focused Man and immediately slumped his shoulders and looked down, gesturing that he was leaving. He rushed straight out the door, never looking up.

It was over before it started, and I don’t think I would have noticed anything if I hadn’t spotted Focused Man acting like he was.

3. Listen to what they don’t say. This one isn’t quite non-verbal, but it’s a good signal. I may ask my clients, “When did you last use?” and they say, “What, drugs?” This tells me that whatever answer they give, they’re not including alcohol. So chances are good they drank before they used narcotics.

I remember one Saturday I was working and a woman came up with her young child.  We normally don’t allow children into our center, but she was on her way back to Minnesota and needed a safe place for a day. Her story didn’t totally make sense, though, particularly because her school-aged daughter was clearly good at school, but had not been going.

I was with her most of the day, asking more questions about her story and what she was doing so far out of Minnesota. Things just didn’t fit, and finally I straight asked her something I hadn’t thought of before: “Are you in danger if you go back to Minnesota?” She didn’t move for a second, but then she nodded. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get them to a safe house.  (I don’t know if it worked, but I pray it did.)

What is your experience reading non-verbal communication?  Have you had success with it?

*Before I begin, please understand I am speaking in generalities only from my experience, and they don’t always work.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Words: 3 Steps in Reading People

  1. Wow! What a wonderful work you do. I need to pay more attention to nonverbal cues, not only for better communication in relationships, but to add to my effectiveness as a writer. I like how you started out the post with that focus. I find most of what I do somehow relates back to my writing. Glad I found you today!

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