How to Really Get To Know Other People

"First impressions matter, and for some, making acquaintances can be a breeze. However, the real work is moving the social needle towards something more than just surface-level interactions"

How to Really Get To Know Other People

I come from a culture where getting to know other people was never an issue. However, over the last few decades, tentacles of globalisation have eroded the local social fabric in such a way that even neighbours have started becoming aliens. Since features of dominant global culture have penetrated deep into social interactions everywhere, we keep moving in the same circle of people no matter how many turns we take. Due to the dominance of social media, instead of loving meeting and seeing people in their fullness, with unique stories to tell; we spend so much time chasing shallow things in life. We only know each other approximately, by external signs, and these seem to be serving as a basis for society and mutual intimacy. We also see people in the context of things now – the person I work with, the person I work out with, the person I meet in the lift, etc.

Our schools and higher institutions have focused more and more on preparing people for their careers, but not on the skills of being considerate toward their peers. The humanities, which used to teach us about what happens in the minds of other people, have become a marginalised subject. However, when a misfortune sets upon us, or late at night when our mind asks us too many questions, it’s about the relationships that matter most. Also, when we reflect about our happiest or most painful times, they always involve and will be about people. Alfred Adler wrote how our relationships make or break our lives, “The individual who is not interested in his fellow men, will have the greatest difficulties in life and causes the greatest injury to others.” Wise people don’t just possess knowledge; they also possess a kind-hearted understanding of other people. 

I was taught in medical college, “Ten cents’ worth of human understanding equals ten dollars’ worth of medical science.” Knowing other people is about appreciating, sometimes beyond words, what they want to say; and sensing what they truly mean, even when they say otherwise. The ability to read people properly can so significantly affect our social, personal, and working lives that some cultures consider it a set of skills, and a way of life, with words to describe this way of being. The Koreans call it "nunchi" (the ability to be perceptive to other people’s emotions and thoughts) and the Germans have a word for it: "herzensbildung" (teaching one’s heart to see complete humanity in another). When we understand how another person is feeling, we can adapt our interaction and communication style to make sure it is accepted in the best way possible. Lao Tzu summarised it so well, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment.”

People are different, and at the same time similar. Professionals state that we size up new people in somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes. First impressions matter, and for some, making acquaintances can be a breeze. However, the real work is moving the social needle towards something more than just surface-level interactions, and getting to know people in a real and meaningful way. Any kind of relationship, even a friendship, can take some time to fully develop. With patience, we can get to know one another better and discover more and more things we might have in common. If you want to make friends, according to Jeff Hall, you need to invest 60-200 hours to achieve the best friend status with someone. I am sure you are also interested in knowing how Arthur Aron got strangers to feel like lifelong buddies in just forty-five minutes. Nonetheless, wisdom is a social skill that is practiced within a relationship or a system of relationships.

The penchant to do the instant size-up of a person is one of diminisher’s trick; we need to get to know others like unwrapping a present. Each person is a mystery, and we are surrounded by so many of them. You might have heard an old story about a man standing by a river. A woman standing on the opposite shore shouts to him, “How do I get to the other side of the river?” The man shouts back instantly, “You are on the other side of the river.” Similarly, we are often unable to ask our children a single question that could extract an answer that discloses what they are really up to. Think of all those clichéd questions you might have asked them from time to time to initiate a conversation, "How was school today?", "Anything fun planned for the weekend?" and "All is well?” So, be patient with the other person (and your children) and do not push them; many people will shut you out if you are too assertive. While some people are open and receptive, others take time to get there.

The people you are talking to are mostly interested in talking about their own achievements and problems as compared to yours. You may use “looping” (repeat what they just said) to clarify their answers but also keep them focused on their core point, rather than going off on a tangent

On social media, you often have the illusion of a social contact without having to perform the actions required to build trust, care, and affection. In real life, the first rule of getting to know someone is to be nice. Since actions speak louder than words, just smile to them for a start. A smile says to another person that I like you and I am glad to see you. You do not need to be super charming, but elementary social graces go a long way in getting to know people. People who are rude or self-centred, or are always looking for a favour, don’t make a lot of friends. You don’t want the other person feeling like they are being punished when they hang out with you or you think that you are better than everybody else. Nobody’s asking you to be a saint either, just be a decent human being. If you have just started talking to someone, do not zoom in straightaway. Small talk about why you are there is a great start, as it is a safe way to break the ice. It is also an unspoken way to get an agreement to keep talking to a person or to leave them alone.

You must pick up other forms of signals to scan the vital non-verbal cues that people give off. Observing the other person and the milieu you are in, are a great means to know others. Things like allowing someone to go if they seem to be in a hurry or changing the subject if they look uncomfortable, would show that you care. When studying others, pay attention to their appearance and behaviour. Do they look groomed or are they in a state of self-neglect? What are they wearing? Are they dressed for success (formal) or for comfort (informal)? Does it conform to the occasion they are at? Are they wearing a Cross, Crescent or Buddha, which are signposts of their spiritual values? These “identity claims” can be deliberate statements of their attitudes and values. A person’s posture also says a lot about his attitude. Holding head high means confidence, and walking indecisively may be a sign of low self-esteem. Similarly, if they lean towards you while talking, there is a good chance they want to connect with you. Leaning away or having arms folded and legs crossed means that they are defensive and putting up a wall. 

Unless someone has a poker face, emotions are written large on our faces. Biting lips, cuticle picking or scratching the chin means that people are nervous and unsure. Regarding facial expressions: frown-lines suggest overthinking, pursed lips signal bitterness, a clenched jaw and teeth grinding are signs of tension, and smiles have various meanings (reward, dominance, friendly, etc). Making eye contact is a sign of good rapport but may have different meanings in diverse cultures. Eyes can also covey if someone is lying - their pupils get dilated. It would be helpful if everyone said what they thought, but we are programmed to say what we think others want to hear. If someone says he is “fine”, but his shoulders are slumped and he is twiddling – all is not well. Keep in mind these incongruous signs unless you know someone well who slumps their shoulders because he is tall. People also have different oddities and patterns of behaviour, and some of these could simply be quirks. Knowing someone over time can create a baseline of others’ normal behaviour for you.

No matter how much you avoid but at some point, you may need to ask questions to know others better. These questions should be open-ended, encouraging the other person to take control of the conversation. The questions should expand the conversation; they must not have a one-word answer but instead require the person to elaborate. Try asking questions that start with “How” or “What” rather than “Why.” They could begin with phrases like “How did you…,”, “What’s it like…,”, “Tell me about…,”, or “In what ways….” The worst questions for knowing someone would be direct, close, and judgemental. They put restrictions on how the question could be answered, eg, “Where did you go to college?”, “Where do you live?”, What do you do?” Another way to completely shut down conversations is to ask questions like, “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” To get a good answer, you must stay away from vague questions as well. Remember not to interrupt when the person is answering your question; use this time to observe their mannerisms.

People who are able to put themselves in the place of others, can also understand the workings of their minds. Please remember that the people you are talking to are mostly interested in talking about their own achievements and problems as compared to yours. You may use “looping” (repeat what they just said) to clarify their answers but also keep them focused on their core point, rather than going off on a tangent. Your next task is to encourage them to go into more depth about things they want to talk about, by using expressions like, “I want to understand your point here….”, or “What am I missing here?” Professionals often look for “action words” to understand others’ personalities. When someone says “This is my second raise,” - he is hinting that he has earned a promotion previously. Such people need to raise their self-esteem; they want you to praise them so that they feel good about themselves. The tone and volume of the voice, give clues to peoples’ emotions, as sound frequencies create vibrations. When reading people, it is worth noting how their tone of voice affects you. 

When you are somewhat comfortable with someone, it is time to go to the next level. The best way to break down the barrier is to act vulnerable by offering personal information and wait for them to open up. This doesn’t mean that you should open heavy or serious topics right away. It is usually best to stay away from controversial or overly personal questions, but this depends on the context. For example, politics and religion are not great opening topics, but they would be fine if you met them at a political rally or in the Church. Listen actively when someone is talking; show this by making intermittent eye contact, turning towards them, and nodding occasionally. If they seem enthusiastic, you’ve perhaps picked a good topic; but if they turn their body or head away, shrug off the question, or give a brief answer, they are not interested. It takes time to warm up to new people, therefore, do not get put off by awkward pauses or even silences. Studies show that it usually takes a month for conversation patterns to settle into a comfortable rhythm.

If transition from bumping-into-each-other to friendship is complete, it is time to explore common interests with a view to spending some time together. It is best to be honest and not to exaggerate your interest in something, as you may find later that the other person is an expert. If either of you is apprehensive, it is better to do a group activity or invite them with a few friends for dinner. A genuine compliment from time to time will make them feel good about themselves and gives them an opportunity to say something they like about you. If your new friend had mentioned that he was anxious about something next week, you could follow up on that and ask how it went, but refrain from offering advice unless asked. Mobile phones are a great way to communicate but try not to bombard them with a flurry of text messages and emails every day of the week. Getting to know someone is about moving from one level of trust to another; you want them to know that you can be counted upon to listen when they want to talk. Keep in mind that sharing is a two-way street, and not to get too personal too quickly, which could make someone uncomfortable.

It is said that some people have to visit a doctor when all they want is an audience. You don’t have to do that because you can make more friends in a couple of months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by forcing them to take interest in you. Human beings are social animals who love to communicate with one another, and social connections are a great source of happiness, success, and good health. The reason people do not want to meet others is that they are either too shy, self-centred, or the noise in their own head, from previous trauma, stops them from hearing what is going on in other heads. Listen to your gut-feeling when you first meet a person; it is your internal truth meter. It will give you a visceral reaction, before you have a chance to think, about whether you would like and trust this person. It is a part of your internal “self-expansion” - that you are ready to expand the notion of yourself to include a person you want to be close to.

Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Consequently, Japanese culture teaches people to reflect and think before they reply. Most of us are, unfortunately, experts in finding faults with others and letting them know. This is without appreciating the psychological notion that nothing that upsets us in others doesn’t also have a home inside us. This disowned part of our own characters, reflects the anger and irritation that must have been shown to us in our childhood by those who raised us. When we criticise others, it says nothing about them; it just highlights our own need to be critical. People who find it hard to connect with others often have trouble connecting with themselves. Friendship is built when individual differences are appreciated, and mistakes are tolerated. Dale Carnegie, the most read author on how to make friends, counsels that any fool can criticise, complain, and condemn - and most fools do; but it takes character and self-control to be empathetic and forgiving.

I believe that the quality of our lives and the health of our society depends on how well we treat each other in our daily lives. People can be smart, but the wise are those who have lived fully and reflected deeply on the journeys they’ve undertaken. When we are down, friends offer us something nicer than solutions: companionship. They do not try to “solve” our problems; they simply listen to us. They are content to be with us as we explain how miserable it feels. They have the wisdom to know that this too shall pass. Nelson Mandela often referred to the African concept of “Ubuntu” – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others. If we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will be in equal measures due to work and achievement of others. So, go on, and say hello to the person next to you. You never know, because “We meet ourselves time and again in thousand disguises on the path to life.”

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor