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.
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