Former Detective Reveals His 5 Best Secrets For Reading People

Words make up only a fraction of your daily interactions with others.

Detectives tips to reading peoples body language Latino Life, Kislev | Canva

Humans are wired to read body language:

According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the outcome of negotiations could be predicted by body language alone 87% of the time. You’ll generally have verbal cues and body language to read when interacting with people. Your ability to predict outcomes could be well over that 87%.


The problem is that most of what we believe about reading people is likely wrong. It’s wrong because we’re not taught to read people, and our information comes from Law and Order reruns.

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Here’s my disclaimer: While I’ve conducted more than 1,000 interviews and have a background in psychology, reading people is both art and science. It’s a skill predicated on probability, and nothing is ever certain.

No one “tell” will let you assess a person or detect a lie. That’s not how it works. You also need to pay attention to context. A person who crosses their arms might be closing themselves off to you. They might also just be cold. Ruling out environmental reasons for a given behavior is crucial to knowing if it’s important.


Why should we read people? I’m glad you asked. The most straightforward answer is honesty. We want to know who we can trust and who we can’t. You don’t want to befriend a coworker who will stab you in the back the first time they see a benefit to it. Another answer is to figure out who is important, or the decision-maker, within a work context. For example, if I’m speaking to a group, it’s helpful to know who in that group I most need to convince.

Fail to read people effectively, and life becomes unnecessarily complicated.

Within a relationship, we need to read our significant other. They might need space one day or need to be close and have a conversation the next. Your significant other may not verbalize those needs. You’ll read people whether you mean to or not, so learn to do it well. So, how do we read people accurately?

RELATED: Longtime Detective Reveals 7 Tiny Signs Someone's Lying


Here are a former detective's 5 best secrets for reading people:

1. Develop a baseline

If you speak to someone who won’t look you in the eye and bites their fingernails, are they being deceptive? Well, is that normal behavior for them? The answer to that question determines whether or not it might mean something.

Every interview and interrogation I did started here. I’d try to spend as much time as practical observing them. I was looking at their mannerisms, demeanor, and gestures. I’d listen to their tone and the tempo of their voice. The more you observe someone, the more it’ll stand out when they act contrary to their norm. We do this with our partners all of the time and it tells us when something is wrong.

These clues can be subtle. Developing a baseline will allow you to spot deviations. Spotting deviations can tell you when something is off.

2. Look for clusters of behavior

Even if you have observed baseline behavior for someone, spotting a single deviation doesn’t mean much. Any clue or deviation on its own could be a fluke. 


Just before I and Father of the Year made snow angels together, I saw a behavior cluster that spelled trouble. I noted his stiff posture, the looking past me, the clenched fist, and furrowed brows. That cluster of behavior was a warning sign. The words he used didn’t matter — his body language said a fight was coming.

3. The loudest people aren’t always the most powerful

During my time as a police officer, I went on to become a detective and received a few promotions. That meant that I had to attend meetings — lots of them. The most influential people in those meetings were typically reserved and confident. They weren’t loud or demanding. Confident people don’t need to be loud, and they don’t need to be the center of attention. They usually don’t bully or talk over others. Confidence is quiet, whereas insecurity never shuts up.

You can generally tell who’s at or near the top of a given hierarchy by the way other people interact with them. With some practice, you can start to see the hierarchy in any meeting or group setting you find yourself in.

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4. Voice pitch and tempo

Voice pitch is often an indicator of confidence. You notice extreme versions of this when someone is nervous about public speaking and their voice “cracks.” Controlling tone fluctuation is challenging as it’s often tied to emotion. Tone can be louder and faster when agitated, slower and quiet when relaxed, and higher in pitch when anxious or nervous.

Listen to most CEOs speak and notice their tone can usually be described as comfortable and conversational. Novice speakers often speak too quickly, as if trying to get it over with or not wanting to draw attention to themselves.

5. Posture

Posture conveys information like a billboard. Standing tall with shoulders pulled back exudes confidence. Rounding the shoulders and hunching over conveys timidness. Fidgeting and avoiding eye contact also convey timidness or discomfort. Crossed arms can often signify resistance toward you or your idea.


Closed off man with arms crossed LightField Studios / Shutterstock

An odd phenomenon known as “mirroring” can occur when people interact. It’s common when you speak with someone who agrees with you and feels connected to you somehow. Mirroring is when you make a motion or change to a certain position. For example, if you cross one leg over the other while seated, the person mirroring you will do the same a short time later.

The benefits of honing your people-reading skills extend far beyond avoiding a snowy fistfight with a grown man (although you can trust me when I say that’s certainly a perk). It can help you negotiate, build stronger relationships, and even sharpen your interview skills in your professional life. In your personal life, it can improve your communication with loved ones, anticipate problems, and even help you diffuse issues before they arise.


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Joshua Mason is a former police detective and public safety leader turned writer. His weekly stories on Medium are dedicated to change, leadership, and life lessons.