Reading people isn’t easy—and it goes way beyond learning how to read body language.
But some people have this almost magical ability to pick up on how others are feeling, what they are thinking, and why they are behaving the way they are.
If you’d like to become a master people-reader, you’ll need to hone a variety of key habits and skills.
These are traits that you can build over time, so stay alert and keep practicing!
1. They pay attention at all times.
Do you know someone who seems to recognize everyone around them or says things like “Oh there’s the man we walked past earlier” about 17938 times a day?
That’s because they’re highly observant and notice things that most others don’t pick up on.
They’re not actively looking for anything specific; they just passively notice a lot more than the average person might do thanks to their observant nature.
This helps them read people because they will have noticed a subtle change that happened 10 minutes ago, and will be keeping an eye out for the consequences.
2. They notice body language.
Have you ever left a conversation and had your friend mention how oddly someone was behaving?
You could sense a weird vibe, but you couldn’t put your finger on it.
Then your friend reveals that as soon as a certain other person arrived, the friend in question crossed their arms across their body, started backing against a wall, and became physically closed off.
While you had identified a general shift, you hadn’t noticed all the specific behaviors! That’s because some people can read the room (and individuals) a lot more easily than others.
They notice which direction people’s feet are pointing (your feet tend to point toward the person you’re most interested in), or at what point someone crossed their arms or started looking at the floor instead of making eye contact.
All these subtle body language changes can indicate shifting feelings, and that’s something that masters of reading other people notice automatically.
3. They pick up on tone of voice.
Some changes in tone of voice are so obvious that they’re uncomfortable for everyone involved. Others are more subtle…
Of course, if you know the people involved, you have an advantage, as you can probably predict how they’ll act or respond anyway!
But a master people-reader can do this with strangers too, just by paying close attention to what someone’s voice sounds like.
People can adjust their tone of voice to appear calmer or cooler, but those who can read others will be able to tell when this is being faked.
It can take a while to hone this skill, but it’s a great one to have!
4. They observe interactions.
Reading people isn’t just about judging how they behave around you—it’s monitoring or noticing their general approach and seeing how their natural level shifts.
Someone might always act quite cold around you, but unless you’ve noticed they’re cold toward everyone, you can’t assume that they’re just a standoffish person!
Instead, you need to evaluate the variables—what are they like in calmer settings, more stressful situations, on their own, in big groups, with you, with other close friends?
Only by watching how someone behaves in general can you make accurate observations about their behavior around, or toward, you specifically.
5. They’re hyperaware of their surroundings.
Reading people goes beyond simply watching how people behave. It’s also about what’s going on in the background.
Strong people-readers are great at monitoring their surroundings.
What else is going on in the background that might be impacting how someone is acting?
Being aware of your surroundings means you notice who arrives and leaves the group—and what impact that has on people’s behavior.
If a friend perks up as soon as another person enters or leaves the room, you can assume that it’s due to the other person’s presence or absence.
This is a great way to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes! Actions or words are rarely standalone—they’re the result and consequence of everything else that’s going on.
6. They have a mental file about everyone.
Sounds a bit creepy, but it’s true!
While it might not be a Joe Goldberg “You”-style level of stalking, people who are good at reading others are pretty good at noticing changes in behavior.
And that’s because they know what the base level for that individual is.
They know how those around them normally act in any given circumstance, and can therefore tell when someone isn’t acting true to form.
This results from watching and paying attention, asking questions, and being open enough to build trust with people.
The more you get to know someone, the more you are able to read them and their actions.
7. They notice subtle shifts.
People who are good at reading those around them tend to be very attentive when it comes to changes in behavior.
It could be something so small that it feels irrelevant, but effective people-readers will have clocked it anyway.
They’re tuned into the nuances of conversations and the subtleties of actions. It’s not just tone of voice and body language, it’s the general energy or ‘vibe’ in the room.
By paying attention to things like this, people-readers can pick up on a whole lot more than the average person would!
8. They are empathetic.
It’s all well and good noticing that someone is behaving differently, but unless you can also figure out why that might be, it’s not a whole lot of help!
To understand why someone might be behaving in a certain way, true masters at reading people can put themselves in the other person’s situation.
People-readers are empathetic and can come up with a list of reasons that might relate to a behavior shift. This helps them navigate others’ actions with more intent, as they can work toward a realistic outcome and fully understand what’s going on.
By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’re able to think more clearly about their approach to life, their motivations, and their secrets!
9. They know a person’s tells.
If you’ve watched any poker movies, you’ll know that everyone has a ‘tell’—a subtle action that gives away what’s going on behind the poker face.
For some poker players, that’s a small cough, a scratch of the ear, or the way they fiddle with a poker chip.
In real life, it’s just the same—everyone has little behaviors that give away how they’re really feeling.
Being good at reading people is great, but what about when the other person doesn’t want to be read? The person you’re watching might sense they’re being observed and could be shifting their behavior to convey a different reaction or emotion.
That’s why tells are so important to keep an eye out for—they are far harder to conceal and so let you know what’s really going on!
10. They ask clarifying questions.
Asking questions is a great way of learning more about someone. The deeper you dig, the more intel you get.
Those who are good at reading people are often big question-askers!
They want to know everything about everyone, as it helps them understand the words and actions of both them and their group more.
They might be looking for context, too. If they’ve read the room and noticed that everyone is acting oddly toward one specific person, they’re going to be doing some digging to see what’s going on in the group dynamic.
This gives them more insight into why people behave the way they do!
11. They notice patterns.
We’ve talked a lot about noticing changes in behavior, but what about repeated behavior?
How do you know if it’s a ‘tell’ or just an actual cough?
Well, people who love reading others are great at determining baselines of behavior and picking up on subtle markers that indicate a person’s thoughts or feelings—but they also tend to keep track of how often these things happen.
Keeping an eye on any changes that happen regularly or happen in waves is essential. Once you notice a habit, you can’t un-notice it, and that helps you reach a whole other level of people reading!
12. They observe themselves.
Not in a creepy way, but a lot of individuals who are great at reading people are so good because they’ve spent time reading themselves.
While you can’t necessarily stare intensely at those around you in public, you can stare at yourself in the mirror.
Getting more familiar with subtle facial expressions and how your eyebrows automatically move when you conjure up specific memories or ideas will help you get to grips with just how much is conveyed through our faces.
Being able to read your own facial expressions will really help you observe others and notice so much more than what’s simply on the surface.
13. They actively listen.
Paying attention to what someone is saying is a great way to understand how they might be feeling.
Reading someone well is about digging deeper, which is why active listening is a key trait of those who are great at reading people.
By actively engaging in the conversation and making it clear you’re interested and want to know more, you’re building a level of rapport and gaining their trust.
They feel interesting and are willing to share personal details with you because you seem so invested.
Through this, you gain so much more access and can really start understanding the nuances of what they’re saying and how they’re acting.
14. They have a strong intuition—and listen to it.
Gut feelings exist for a reason—often, the way our body reacts or our initial thoughts are the most accurate.
While we’re not saying that snap decisions or judgements are infallible, they can go a long way to helping you read people.
Your gut feelings are likely to arise in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened—trust that primal response, but be open to learning more.
Develop other theories on a person before you act, but don’t ignore what your body is trying to tell you.
15. They feel contextual energies.
Being able to read people is about tapping into what’s going on overall.
How does the room feel, is there a level of tension, where are people’s gazes resting, who’s leaning toward who, where are everyone’s feet pointing?
While we’ve covered this to an extent in terms of reading an individual, it’s important to read the context, too. You might only care about the behavior of one person in the room, but what can the other people around tell you?
Do they keep glancing at the person you’re observing, or do they avoid eye contact? Is the conversation light or fraught with tension? Are people laughing or are there awkward pauses?
Context clues can help you understand why someone might be acting a certain way (are they awkward or is the environment just awkward?), and also help you pick up on the general ‘vibe’ or energy of the place.
Learning to read people takes time, but it is a useful skill to have. It’s great to work on it and practice whenever possible, but do your best to be subtle—nobody wants to feel like they’re being observed or monitored all the time!
Start small—choose a target in a public place and chat with your friends about what you’ve each picked up on based on their behavior. Being able to see what other people see is one of the best ways of learning to read others.
The more insight and views you can gain, the better you’ll become at reading people!