The 3 Steps to Understanding Other People’s Actions



MoMA crowd

It’s been said that actions speak louder than words. For the most part this is true. But if you don’t understand what those actions mean, it doesn’t make a difference either way.

The good news is that understanding the actions of other people doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, I’ve condensed it down to just three steps that have worked really well for me. It’s given me a much better insight not only into other people’s actions, but also their underlying character.

The First Big Realization

My first big discovery in understanding people’s actions originated at a party in college. I noticed a guy and girl flirting with each other consistently throughout the evening. To me, it was obvious that they were attracted to each other.

However, to my surprise the guy came up to me and asked me if I thought she was interested in him. I thought that it couldn’t be any more obvious. How could someone misunderstand an action so blatant?

But soon I realized that I had been in this situation before too. I’ve asked others’ opinions about girls’ interest to their amazement as well. For some reason, being in the flirting situation dulls the ability to understand others’ actions.

The reason it is harder to understand is because when you are in the situation, you process everything through your own ego and perceptions. This distorts your understanding of others’ actions. Because you see all of the their actions through you, their intent becomes unclear.

What’s amazing about this discovery to me is how often this actually occurs. I’ve noticed myself and others are often unable to process correctly the actions of others simply because we are the recipients of those actions. People seem to filter the world through how it affects them.

You have to let go of this filtering system. Understanding others’ actions must take place from the other person’s point of view. Every action someone does is about that person, not you. This is the big underlying rule you need to know for these steps.

So keeping this rule in mind, here are the three steps.

1. Take yourself out of the situation and let go of your reaction

One of first things people usually notice when someone does something is how it affects them. Does their action make you feel happier, sadder or any other kind of emotion? How you respond and feel isn’t something you can change.

What you can do is acknowledge your reaction and move on to focus on the action itself. Because it is so easy to get lost in your response, you often lose sight of what the person is doing or saying. If you can’t move past your reaction, you’ll never really understand other people’s actions.

2. What is their motivation?

Once you take yourself out of the situation, you can analyze their motivation. Every action and behavior has some sort of goal and intent behind it. If you look closely enough, you’ll be able to figure it out.

Look at it from that person’s point of view. Why would someone say or do what they did? Perhaps they are satisfying their own egos or maybe they are doing something out of a deep rooted insecurity.

Many times people do or say something to give off an impression. I often will take the person’s action and imagine myself doing it. Then I try to figure out the reason why I would say or do it.

Just remember that if someone says something that causes a big emotional response in you such as anger, it might not be their intent. I’ve had people who have angered me over things they’ve said and it often comes from their own insecurities rather than any attempt to cause me harm.

Of course, there are those whose intent is to get emotional responses from you. You just have to evaluate the situations as they arise and make your best judgments. With practice, this becomes easier.

3. What was their desired outcome?

Sometimes what people intend to do and what actually happens are two different things. For example, if a guy is trying to attract a woman, but does it poorly he can actually creep her out and drive her away. His desired outcome was to attract her, but the actual outcome was to repel her. It might be easy for some people to misinterpret his actions as intentionally trying to be creepy.

This is something important to remember since the results of actions don’t always reflect the original desired outcome. This is something people easily confuse.

Understanding Actions

Using this system, I’ve been better able to understand people’s actions more. It’s not always perfect, but then again, no system for understanding people works 100% of the time. At least next time someone says you can’t do something or critiques your life goals you’ll have a better understanding of it and you’ll know it is more about them than it is about you.
photo credit: Susan NYC

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  1. I like to think I’m pretty good at trying to understand people’s motivations for doing things but it’s still difficult to not feel hurt or freaked out by them if they’ve done something against you.

    • That’s true. Breaking away from bad feelings can be difficult. I’ve had trouble with it too, but it does help in understanding others.

  2. Ah yes, the benefits of stepping back actually looking at the situation objectively. Difficult to do at times, especially when flirtation is on the line.

    I see this a lot in the professional world though. It seems the successful folks seem to get this, the whole understanding people’s actions.

    But lets pull away from work life for a moment. Empathy is critical. That’s the take away.

    • It seems especially hard when flirtation is on the line. Stepping back can be hard when you’re in the situation. Often I have to look at things later when I’m away from everything and then do my analysis of what happened.

  3. Steve,
    I am glad I found you! I found you through @Benny_Hsu post this morning. I loved your twitter handle and bitty-bio, thought to myself, “hmmm…”

    It took me so many years and life threatening events to even begin to know what you wrote here, today. I will be back to read the entire series. Beautifully written and so helpful….Although, I wonder if I would have known this post to be true if I had read it years ago.

    I hope many-many people read it and I will certainly try to make sure that happens, it is such a truth. When we do exactly as we described, it makes things so clear. Not always right, but feelings and emotions burst out of us in the middle of dealing with things sometimes and this may help each one of us, give each other a break.

    Thanks for this and being here. I’ll be back!

    • Hi Amber-Lee, I’m glad you found the site. It took me many years to figure out to step back and look at actions objectively too. It definitely made things much more clear for me.

      I hope to see you again soon.


  4. This is really a helpful post. I’m going to remember that I need to take myself out of situations so I can look at them more accurately. I think that advice is going to prove useful. Thank you :)

  5. Don’t we all wish that our actions are understood by others. Sadly that is not the case and I don’t think it’s ever going to really change.

    I like the whole idea of the 3 steps. But realistically I doubt anyone would actually really remember to remind themselves these steps when they are fully immersed in the present.

    I try to always gauge how I make people feel by my actions, I call that empathy. For me empathy encapsulates the three steps you mention and more so.

    • I wouldn’t underestimate people to remember these steps. There are only three and I tried to make them as simple and straightforward as possible. Personally speaking, I’ve remembered steps like this for social interactions. For instance, I’ve used the much more complex steps in the book “Getting to Yes” in group settings effectively.

      I’m glad you use empathy to understand others, but I purposely avoided using that term. There is only a general understanding of what empathy is; you can find dozens of specific definitions for it. Plus some people confuse it with sympathy. I wanted to be as clear as possible because that’s more helpful than just telling people to be empathetic. I’m sure whatever way you understand and use empathy works and that’s great.

  6. Steve,

    I gave up trying to figure people out a long time ago. It was one day at a football game where the people on the field keep huddling up and talking about me before every play. After that day I knew the world was out to get me. :-) Now I have a panic room to protect me from other people and their actions. lol!

    Steve this was a very thoughtful post with valid tips on talking the time to understand people from a diffrent perspective. You have made me want to put this to practice asap. Thanks!

  7. That’s a very important point to make. If you are outside of the situation it’s easier to see ALL sides. But once you’re in it, you’re thinking about your own ego because you’re in a more vulnerable position.

    • I think it’s default mode to put yourself into the situation. But it’s only when you take yourself out of it can you see what the other person was really trying to do.

  8. Hey Steve,
    It’s like being an armchair quarterback. When we are not physically in the same situation we are able to perceive it without all of the distractions of being up close.

    • I like the analogy of an armchair quarterback. The same thing happens to people when they watch reality shows like Survivor. It’s much harder if you’re actually in the situation rather than just watching it.

  9. Man I’m never surprised by how clearly everything becomes when I step back and remove myself from the situation, whether understanding others actions or solving a problem. Great post and steps to do next time I can’t fathom how someone else behaves (which will be probably about 8:30 tomorrow morning). :)

    • Yeah, you’re right. Taking yourself out of things would help in some problems too. I think it’s just a good thing to do in many cases so you can think much more clearly. That way, you don’t have your emotions to muddy up your thinking.

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