How to understand people better

It is not necessary to have a degree in psychology to understand people. The tools are readily available to everyone. All that is required is interest, attentive listening and appropriate responses.

All talk is conducted for either obtaining or giving information or for psychological gain. It is important to understand the psychological needs that govern human communication.

People converse for satisfying four common needs: the need for attention (mattering), the need for connection (friendship, intimacy), the need for validation (being of value, increasing self- esteem), and the need for belonging (being a part of a group for safety and survival). Once we understand what drives interpersonal discourse, it is easier to understand what people need and how to provide it.

Most people enjoy the attention of being listened to. Attention confirms to us that we matter to the listener. It affirms our worth and creates a feeling of well being. We have all witnessed how some people vie for the opportunity to tell their story and have others focus on their every word. Some like to tell funny stories, jokes, or fascinating tales to hold the interest of their listeners. Others choose to recite their failings, misfortunes, or bad luck to capture not only attention; but compassion as well.

When we speak to establish a connection, we not only delight in the attention; but we search for a reaction of shared feelings, thoughts or experiences. Conversations with new acquaintances are often exploratory missions to detect areas of common interest. “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Were you in the army, college or job environment similar to mine?” Once a point of convergence is found a kinship is established upon which a friendship may develop. As friendship evolves, intimacy may flourish as well.

Wanting to be validated, approved of, thought well of and impress others comes from the need to be liked. Positive regard from people reinforces our self-esteem and strengthens us emotionally. Even the most secure people still hunger for external confirmation of their internal self-worth. Some language is blatant in its’ search for praise. “I just caught the biggest fish.” “My boss says I am the best employee he has had in the past twenty years”. Though these comments may sound like bragging, they are actually clear quests for admiration.

Belonging to a group is another strong human need. We feel safer, protected and cared for within our group. We create many sub-groups to help define us as uniquely connected. There are service groups, hobby groups, recreational groups, family groups, religious groups, national groups and more. Since historically man survived and thrived if he was part of a group, we became programmed to join and belong to feel safe and protected. Unfortunately, in order to strengthen one’s belonging, some groups resort to developing a superior posture toward other groups. The language used by members of a group serves to enhance their strength, value and pride. “We belong together, we are the best.”

People are quite transparent. They are open and divulging without even intending to do so. Since every person is only able to know himself, every statement made by each individual represents that person’s ideas, values and personality.

All we need to do is be interested enough to listen and honor the speaker. Caring to hear what the person says affords the talker an opportunity to get his story told and his needs met. The better the listener, the more verbal the talker will be and the closer both people may become.

When we listen attentively, we will know the motivation for the conversation. Is the speaker telling us of his successes, (possibly asking for praise?) or about his woes (perhaps needing some compassion?) or asking about us (perhaps testing a connection?), or telling of his group (possibly affirming his worth or lovability?).

Listening, without judgement, for the need behind the words, prepares us to respond appropriately. We can affirm, be entertained, share our story, support a group connection, or validate the person’s worth.

There are many additional clues people reveal about themselves while they speak. One example is the individual’s view of life. Is he presenting a negative or positive story to obtain attention? Is he devaluing himself or exaggerating his strengths? Is his view of other people favorable or not? Does he seek distinction by discounting others? Though the need for the discourse may be identical, different people go about getting their needs met in their own personal way. The flavor of the presentation is indicative of each individual’s personality.

To get to understand people better:

  • You need to know the common motivations for verbal exchanges.
  • You need to be willing to listen carefully and respectfully to the speaker.
  • You need to avoid criticism by accepting that this is this individual’s chosen way for need fulfillment.
  • If you can detect the need behind the words and provide an appropriate response, both of you will be enriched.
  • The process of listening and responding well is an active process requiring complete concentration on the other person to the temporary abandonment of one’s own needs.
  • Through better understanding others, we better understand ourselves and can help create a more loving and receptive connection between people.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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