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The benefits and perils of judging character

April 22, 2012

I like to think of myself as a great judge of character. That’s not to say that all my acquaintances are saints, just that I understand what makes them tick.

It doesn’t take long for me to figure out what drives most people. I read non-verbal cues pretty quickly, it’s a skill I developed in two stages, first learning how to lie with a straight face as a kid, I had to figure out which of my facial tics, verbal cues and gestures were getting me pinched by parents and teachers. I spent most of my high school and college years trying to figure out how far I could push a tall tale among my classmates before they’d clue in.

Second, while I was a reporter, I learned how to speed up the process. I got good at detecting changes in speech patterns when I interviewed people. Part of it was just trying to figure out what the crux of a story was. When people get interviewed, particularly non-politicians, they talk a lot. You have to dig through a lot chaff before you get to the wheat. So you listen to a person go on about any subject and focus on the parts where they’d get most ramped up. The other stuff is useful too, but the headline usually came from where the energy level rose.

Politicians were just the opposite, you had to look for the shortest answers or the answers that diverged farthest from the question. Those were the target points that would need to be followed up on later. This is a generalization of course, there’s far more to it then a two-sentence description, but that’s it in a nutshell.

When I got into PR I took part in a lot of media training classes, how to answer questions on camera, etc. Because I had a background in journalism I was able to teach a lot of folks how to handle journalists in a way that could save face in the midst of a negative news story by adjusting responses differently for print and TV interviews, essentially making it difficult for journalists to craft their spin on your story. Everything I pulled from was based on what I had learned watching human nature roll out in front of me.

Right now in my career, I don’t have much need for reading interviewees or controlling a story arc, however I find that the skills I developed about reading people are just as useful, especially when it comes to working with people from various backgrounds.

These skills are also a burden, especially as it relates to friends. Because I understand their nature so well, I can usually predict their actions. And it kills me when, though I predict the dangers that lay ahead of them, they travel down that road anyway, right into the minefield I pointed towards. I just want to shake them and say, “Listen! I have more data than you, you have to listen to me!” But of course, who responds well to that. So instead, I restrain myself offering a simple warning, hoping for the best, only to see one mine after another blow up.

It’s worse when they tell me I’m wrong or I’ve misread the situation. Because in my heart I want to believe them, but I know they’re lying, if not to me then themselves. What they don’t realize is that as they’re speaking to me I’ve already gone into character mode, pulling apart every morsel of information I’ve gathered about a situation and all its elements, analyzing it and coming to a set of percentage conclusions.

I’m not always correct, but I’m consistent enough that if I’m bringing it up, there’s probably a morsel of concern you should be sharing.

And when it does happen, it’s painful.

[Note added 4/23, 11 AM EDT – I was running on two hours of sleep over the last 48 hours when I wrote this, so it may be a little whinier rantier and shrill than usual. My apologies.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 12:12 AM

    Thank you for including a link to one of my notes. My web site has many more notes on interviewing See – www,management-me,com

  2. April 23, 2012 9:20 AM

    Thank you for including a link to our post Character ( This is very interesting. I look forward to your future posts!

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