Like many photographers before him, Richard Zaltman was visiting remote areas of the world to capture images of people living lives far removed from those in the United States. Here’s what made his experience different. One morning, while walking through an isolated village in Bhutan, he suddenly got the idea of turning his camera over to the locals to see what they would consider significant enough to show others about themselves.
Later, when he looked at all their pictures, he noticed that most of the photos cut off people’s feet. “At first, I thought the villagers had just aimed wrong,” Zaltman says. “But it turns out that being barefoot is a sign of poverty. Even though everyone was barefoot, people wanted to hide that – -which is an important message to see.”
You never really begin to know someone until you see the choices that person makes. We instinctively put people into categories to make the world more understandable and then get surprised by a co-worker’s sudden vehemence about a new subject. That’s the mystery of life. You can have fewer surprises, however, when you seek to understand others’ less visible, underlying motives. What others don’t reveal is often most revealing. What one doesn’t say often says it all.
As surrealist painter, Rene Magrite wrote, “Everything we see hides something else we want to see.” Surrealists in art and literature in the 1920s and 1930s sought to understand and portray others’ subconscious perceptions of the physical world. If you want insights into why people do what they do — so you can find the common ground upon which to work or play together – discover their unstated or even unconscious motivations for protection or pleasure. Uncover what they feel but are not saying. Here are four ways to learn more about underlying feelings — yours and others — so you can be more thoughtful, clear, genuine and connective in your choices and your communication.
Look for the “Bare Feet” That Aren’t in the Picture
To better understand someone and how to inspire that person to take positive action, learn to recognize his unstated “hot buttons of high emotion”, positive or negative. These are the major rules to his “operating manual” — what makes him run smoothly, bump into obstacles or simply get stuck. People act most quickly and intensely to avoid what they fear, even if their worst fear has a much lower probability of occurring than the possibility of their dream scenario. That’s because our deepest, most innate and primeval gut instinct is to survive. We reflexively react to any appearance of danger from the most primitive, triune part of the brain, which was developed way back when “fight or flight” seemed the only options for any situation.
See Them in Motion to See Their Emotions
Seek to understand what the other person most wants to avoid; what most annoys them or makes them angry or anxious. To recognize their hot buttons, look for changes in their behavior as signals that you are on a hot topic of concern. Facial expression tells others how we feel, while our bodies suggest the intensity of our feelings. Look for the “vital signs” of increased excitement such as dilated pupils, constricted throat that produces a higher and /or thinner voice, rapid blinking, flushed face, more rapid and shallow breathing or much less breathing and avoidance of direct eye contact when he had looked you in the eye earlier in the conversation.
If the person usually moves and gestures little, look for the times when he has more and more rapid body movements and hand or foot changes. If he tends to be more animated, look for the times when he becomes more still. Women, in time of increased concern, are more likely to “hand dance,” that is move the hands and forearms more.
When seated, men tend to “leak” their feelings through twitching one foot when their legs are crossed. In general, in times of conflict or other kinds of tension, women tend to move and talk more and more; men tend to move and talk less and less. Psychiatrist, Pierre Mornell wrote a book about this effect, called “Passive Men and Wild, Wild Women.”
Once you recognize when someone gets upset, you can consider what gets them upset and come closer to understand their operating manual. Now you can present your ideas in ways that address their concern, either directly or indirectly. Thus you can get someone to either take action to avoid their perceived danger or recognize how the perceived danger can be overcome or avoided to they can contemplate an “upside” opportunity.
We Often Don’t Understand Their Own Strong Reactions
Many times we are not aware of our underlying fears or concerns. We often go through life in a trance, reacting to earlier patterns, especially vividly negative experiences, and not knowing that we are not acting in our current best interests. A client of mine only realized at age 42 that because she had a stocky brother who physically and verbally bullied her, she’d developed a pattern the rest of her life of what she now calls “preemptive defensiveness” around any man she met with a similarly chunky body type.
Only by understanding her previously unconscious “imprinting” from childhood could she begin to change her behavior towards new people she met.
Another colleague grew up in a household where tidiness and timeliness were paramount. He was the “black sheep” in the family who resisted. Even into adulthood, he kept a messy home and office, and was often late, especially for people he felt were trying to control him. However, until he recognized the pattern — and his core unconscious motivation for freedom he can’t really choose the path that’s most likely to enable him to get it.
Plus few of use are deeply aware of how dramatically our bodies shut down in times of perceived crisis or even unfamiliar situations, yet the phenomena has wide implications. In times of fear or even mild discomfort, we have diminished hearing. We start listening later in the conversation and hear and remember less.
Our peripheral vision narrows in times of mild or extreme upset. Even the ability to taste goes down. Imagine the effect on a police officer who is afraid in a dark alley, or a surgeon who becomes angry during an operation or a child facing a teacher on the first day of school.
In each “shut down” situation, they are hampering their ability to perform and others may misinterpret their slowed down reactions, with possible negative consequences for several people in the situation. You may see the pattern in someone else’s hot buttons when they do not, especially if you are around that person frequently. If this person is close to you at home or work, it pays to recognize their unstated warning signs so you appear as safe and familiar as possible to that person, so they can be open to hearing you.
Don’t assume the other person fully realizes why she is saying or acting the way she is. Her words or deeds may have very different meaning for him than for you. For example, many Americans are disturbed when another person does not look them directly in the eye while talking. Yet for some cultures, such as Spanish, direct eye contact demonstrates a lack of respect. Many shy people or those deep in thought prefer to look away.
When someone else does not act right, like you, your strongest instinct will be to make them act right by acting out a more extreme variation of your “right” behavior. For example, you may become exaggerated in your attempt to look closely at the other person so they will look at you. Instead, look to your “bottom line,” the main goal in the situation — which may be to get a task done or to simply play.
We Are Often Far More Revealing by the Questions We Ask Than the Answers We Give
To increase the chances of learning what is really on someone’s mind — and thus what will motivate them to act — know that people are far more revealing when they are the questioners. When they are question you, rather than when you are questioning them. While we are taught to ask questions to show interest and learn more about another person, we will learn more, more deeply and quickly when we get that person to ask us questions.
How? Explain something that engages their interest, touching on the highlights so they want to ask questions to learn more. Respond directly but briefly to their questions so they are “in charge” and asking follow-up questions to learn still more. Note the direction that the other person’s questions take. On average, by the third question, you will know more about the nature of their deeper concern or interest than if you had “taken charge”, even with good intent to ask your own sequence of questions.
Why? Because you don’t know what you don’t know. Your line of questions will be based on your worldview and operating manual. Their line of questions will reveal theirs. Their questions bring you closer to what’s most on their mind, especially if they could ask them in close sequence to get at what they msot wanted to know.
What Do You Not See in Yourself?
Want to learn more about your own blind spots and hot buttons? Or solve a nagging, recurring problem? Or have a novel approach to an opportunity pop into your mind?
Take time to do some of the apparently time-consuming daily tasks you often do too fast or hire someone else to do: garden, wash your car, walk rather than drive to an errand, build or repair it yourself. You need these times to “sidelong” glance at the periphery of your thoughts to gain insights into your own “operating manual.” Savor the time to stay aware in real time. When you do a physical task, especially one that involves motion, sunshine and fresh air, your mind can move in different directions. Consider these task your “mental cross-training” to get deeper into your own psyche and imagination.
Who’s Living Your Life?
You’ll gain a second benefit from your labors. To “anchor” that thought, here’s a story. Beth Berg created a job out of designing and maintaining rich person’s gardens in Southern California. We went sailing near Santa Catalina Island in a boat lent to her by Richard, a client who was detained in New York and could not use it. I asked her if she would ever hire someone like herself to do some of her maintenance tasks. “I don’t think so,” she replied. “I think I would always want to take care of those basic things in my life. Because if you don’t put the work into something, you don’t know the worth of it either.” Beth said that she told Richard, her client, “We plant these flowers in your garden and most of the time you just walk by them. It’s sad, really. You don’t get the good feelings from your life that I get from your life.”
Ways to Sidelong Glance Back at Your Own Way of Deciding
• Do the mundane to experience the profound.
• Go slow to go fast.
• Step back from your hot subject to walk close to it.
• Do something real to see something intangible.
• Move your hands and body to move your mind and imagination.
• Look sideways to see directly.
• Look wide to see narrowly.
• Look at what you hate to recognize what you fear and don’t like in yourself.
• Hear your criticisms to discover your sense of your own inadequacies.
• Notice what you avoid to recognize what you most need to learn next.
• Notice when and where you dabble, doodle and dawdle to see your dreams for living the kind of adventure life story you really want.