What's Not Revealed
is Often Most Revealing
by Kare Anderson
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 know someone until you see the choices she 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
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 and genuine 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.
- People 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
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 free could he choose
how he really wanted to act.
Few people are aware of how dramatically 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, people have diminished hearing.
They start listening to you later in the conversation and hear and remember
Their peripheral vision narrows in times of mild or extreme upset. Even
the ability to taste goes down. Imagine a police officer who's afraid in
a dark alley, 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 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.
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
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
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.
Emmy-winning former NBC and Wall Street Journal reporter, Kare Anderson
is CEO of Say it Better Center, co-founder of women's social network, SavvyHer
and author of SmartPartnering, LikeABILITY, Resolving Conflict
Sooner and other books. Visit www.SayitBetter.com.
more articles in Communications in The CEO Refresher