Wellbeing Wizard

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How to understand people
Written by Mark Millard   


A model is neither right nor wrong, it is either more or less useful Stafford Beer

Understanding and reading people is a valuable skill to develop and practice. It’s one we can use in all areas of our lives to build better relationships and improve our sense of wellbeing.

Mostly we rub along with one another just fine but there are times and there are people with whom we need to make, maintain or rebuild particularly important relationships.

In these circumstances it really helps to have a decent working model of what makes people tick, them and us.

The model we’ll run through is a tried and tested one used by psychologists in many settings. We'll look at people from 5 perspectives and build up an appreciation of:

1. Their thought processes
2. Their emotional drives
3. Their personality and self-presentation
4. Their connections and relationships
5. Their strengths and the situations that suit them

In each area we’ll look at some useful questions to consider.

Maintaining our objectivity is an important part of the process. It helps to be mindful of our own reactions to the person and how they affect our judgement.

To understand someone properly we need to see them as they actually are, not through a lens clouded by our own emotions or agenda. And the stronger the feelings we have about a person the harder it becomes to see them as they really are. 

1. Understanding People's Thought Processes

The way we think affects how we consciously navigate the world, what and how we learn, solve problems and make decisions. For example, some people’s approach to life and people is rational and logical, while others are more impulsive or instinctive. If we want to understand a person, figuring out how their thought processes work is a good place to start, e.g:

How smart is this person, and in what ways - logical/analytical, creative, practical?

What are they interested in or knowledgeable about – how much do they think and what about?  

What sort of information do they go for – facts & data, theories & concepts, instincts & feelings?

Is their thinking structured & orderly, free-flowing & inventive, deep or light?

Are they big picture or detail minded? Narrow band or broad band? Quick or considered? Perfectionist or pragmatist? A thinker or a doer?

Understanding how a person thinks helps us tune in to their wavelength and the way they go about things.

2. Understanding People's Drives and Emotions

If thought is the navigation system then emotions are the power plant. Where thoughts take time and effort, emotions instantly and automatically activate people. It’s emotions that turn us on, turn us off and keep us going. To understand why people do what they do we need to consider these inner drives and sensitivities:

How much emotional energy do they have – High or Low? Active or inactive? Dynamic & driven or laid back & relaxed?

What gets them moving – what are they attracted to and what do they move away from?

What are their likes & dislikes – people, things, values, attitudes & behaviour?

What positive emotions do they show and what negative emotions? 

How do they operate - upbeat or downbeat? Fragile or resilient? Confident or a worrier? Giver or taker? Tough or tender? Predictable or unpredictable?

Of all the areas the emotional one can be the most difficult to pin down, but if nothing else, we need some appreciation of what their hot buttons are - what pleases them and what pisses them off.

3. Understanding People's Personality and Self-Presentation

One way of thinking about personality is to see it as a type or a brand. Another way is to see it as a series of layers.

At the core is a set of basic, genetically determined traits, the ways we've been wired up to be.  On top of the givens lie a set of characteristics we've created for ourselves, ways of being and doing which help us get on in life.

And it may be that people vary the way they present themselves:

First impressions - what do you get? How do they come across? Does it last? 

Physical presence – size, shape, looks, movements & expressions.

Personal presentation – clothes, personal grooming, voice – tone, volume & use of language, tastes & trappings.

Personality – outgoing or reserved? Hard work or easy going? Organised or casual? Smiley or shouty? Open or closed?

Consistency - are there different sides to this person?

Our aim here is to look at both the underlying traits and the more superficial characteristics and consider whether what you see is what you get.

4. Understanding People's Relationships

We are who we hang out with to some extent.  We pick up values, attitudes, behaviours, habits, norms and even emotions from those around us.  Although some people are more susceptible to social influences we are all affected by the people around us. So to understand someone it helps to look at the company they keep. 

How sociable are they? How much do they enjoy and seek out the company of others?  How easy are they to get to know?

What do they look for in other people? What sort of people do & don't  they get along with? How extensive is their social network and who's in it?

How socially skilled are they? Are they good with people? Which people?

What groups or 'tribes' do they belong to - demographic, professional, interest etc

What qualities do they bring to a relationship or group? What roles do they play? What status or position do they assume and how do they relate to others?

People's connections also have a significant effect on their success and satisfaction with life, depending on whether the relationships they form give them the practical help, emotional support and personal companionship they need.

5. Understanding People's Strengths and Situations

We tend to underestimate how much situations influence our behaviour but the effects can be profound.  Certain situations can bring out the best and the worst in us.

The last part of the jigsaw is to consider what a person's strengths are and in what situations they shine:

What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? (Note: aim for balance) 

When are they at their best - what are they doing, who are they with and what's the situation?

When are they not at their best - what are they doing, who are they with and what's the situation?

What situations suit them - structured or unstructured? Pressured or unpressured? Familiar or unfamiliar?

And factoring in the effects of any particularly positive or negative life events completes our understanding.

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