Think back to the last conversation you had with someone, how tuned in were you to their voice inflection, gestures and body language? In every conversation, we must notice and interpret both the words being said and all the nonverbal behaviors that accompany those words. We use this information to infer characteristics (like attitudes, emotions, and expectations) about the person we are talking with. Noticing and interpreting another person’s behaviors is a recognized skill. Researchers refer to it as person perception. Having good person perception skills is vital to conversation quality and positive outcomes.
Decades of research have shown that perceiving others more accurately is directly related to satisfying and productive interactions. In the sales and service professions, those who are better at perceiving the intentions of prospects/customers win more business, receive larger salary raises, and have higher customer satisfaction ratings.
When it comes to noticing and interpreting another person’s behaviors, individuals vary at this skill. In the overall population, person perception falls on a bell curve, meaning a few people are really good at it but most of us fall in the middle of the curve.
We are actually pretty poor when it comes to assessing our own ability to perceive others. We overestimate our ability to successfully read other people and assume the things we are inferring about others are correct. In one study, 75% of surgeons surveyed reported that they had communicated well with their patients. However, when they asked the patients, only 21% reported satisfactory communication. One of the reasons we have such little meta-awareness of our own ability to effectively perceive others is that we receive very little feedback about the inferences we make. We often get it wrong and don’t know it, causing the quality of our communication to suffer.
In practice, communication is more complex than we realize. Consider that during a given conversation, both participants are sending and receiving signals, interpreting the other’s behaviors, managing their own behavior, and formulating an appropriate response.
Even people under normal circumstances who are good at perceiving others can struggle when the environment is not ideal. Some people and behaviors are just harder to read than others. Estimates suggest that we judge emotions from facial cues correctly 90% of the time; we know that in general a smile means happiness and a frown means sadness. However, we are much less accurate when inferring emotions and intentions from voice alone.
Person perception is a skill that requires mental effort in the same way as solving a complicated math equation. Researchers call this mental effort “emotional labor”. This mental effort we put into perceiving others is taxing and can lead to increased burnout over time, especially in professions in which workers have numerous interactions each day or deal in emotionally charged subject matters; for example, healthcare providers, social workers, and most egregiously call center workers.
Person perception is especially difficult when there are things competing for our mental attention. This increased cognitive load can hamper our ability to read behavior and communicate effectively. One study asked participants to take a standardized test of person perception while also completing a simple working memory task. The study showed a significantly reduced ability to accurately infer the thoughts and feelings of another person as compared to those who were able to just focus on person perception. Imagine how this translates in a call center where service representatives must recall numerous policies and procedures while simultaneously navigating multiple applications. The first thing to deteriorate is the representative’s ability to read and connect with the customer, resulting in poor conversations and excessive stress on the rep.
There is a popular notion that people are born with the natural ability to read others well, and it’s not something that can be taught. And while it’s true that there is individual variation in ability, the assumption that we cannot improve our person perception skills through education and training is incorrect. Recent research shows that through training we can significantly improve our ability to accurately interpret the behaviors of others during conversations. And this isn’t just for people at the bottom of the curve, the most skilled perceivers also get better at reading others with training.
The type of training is key. The most effective way to improve person perception is with real-time feedback. With real-time feedback, we instantly know whether we correctly noticed a behavior or missed an important cue. When people improve their person perception skills it frees up cognitive capacity and reduces mental effort ultimately leading to better conversations and less burnout.
Today, most of us receive little feedback on our person perception skills resulting in an overinflated assessment of our abilities. Through real-time feedback we can improve our ability to interpret the behavior of others and appropriately respond. Improving perception skills leads to better interactions, more satisfied participants, and happier healthier workers.