What’s Not Revealed Is Often Most Revealing

Of all the exotic adventures photographer Richard Altman has had in remote parts of the world, one from a decade ago sticks in his mind. While walking through an isolated village in Bhutan, he suddenly got the idea of turning his simplest camera over to locals. He asked them take photos of each other, to show what was most meaningful to them.

Afterward he noticed something odd when closely perusing the images they took. 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 extreme poverty. Even though everyone there was barefoot, they preferred to hide that side of themselves.

1. Look for the “Bare Feet” That Aren’t in the Picture

To understand what makes someone tick, notice the topics they avoid as much as the ones they are most drawn to discuss. 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 world.

If you want to establish trust and instill a sense of mutuality with others, discover their unstated or even unconscious motivations for pleasure and protection. Here are ways to recognize and respond to underlying feelings — yours and others — so you can be more thoughtful, clear and connective in your choices and your communication.

Tip: Listen closely for what is not said.

2. Adopt a Defensive Driving Mindset

Just as looking several cars ahead can prevent accidents, sensing sooner when someone is uncomfortable enables us to avoid a conversational crash. That’s helpful as we are still hardwired to react most quickly, intensely and longer to what we fear or don’t like than what we do. After all, our deepest gut instinct is to survive. We reflexively react to any appearance of danger, even a quick motion. That trait has been honed in the primitive, triune part of our brains way back when “fight or flight” seemed to be the only options for survival.

You’ll get less strife and more support if you spend some time to recognize the three specific “hot trigger” behaviors that most set you off, and the three that spark negative reactions in each person you are most frequently around. Only then can you plan and practice how to behavior to avoid setting off those triggers, in you or in them.

Tip: Recognizing their hot buttons enables you to avoid burning the relationship

3. Influence How Others Choose

When you want to sway someone, evoke what I dub the Danger Avoidance Instinct. Characterize the situation they are facing with a Best Case/Worst Case Scenario that is true. Get vividly specific about the worst case option, especially if it might cause public humiliation. Even if you characterize that option as having only a 20% probability, and you vividly describe the best case scenario, suggesting a 60% probability of it happening, guess what? Most people are more motivated to avoid the downside than possibly benefit from the upside.

Tip: We are more strongly wired to avoid what we fear than to go towards what we desire

4. See Them in Motion to Sense Their Emotions

Seek to understand what the other person most wants to avoid — what most annoys them or makes them angry or anxious. Another way to recognize their hot buttons, is to look for changes in their behavior. Facial expressions show how they feel, while bodies express the intensity of those 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.

If that 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 their hands and forearms more.

When seated, men tend to “leak” their feelings, sometimes by 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 vividly wrote about these reactions in Passive Men and Wild, Wild Women.

Warning: we are overly confident in our ability to read what these body signs mean, according to Mindwise author Nicholas Epley, yet we can know they are feeling a change in emotion and a greater intensity of feelings.

Tip: Don’t speculate. Ask questions in ways they may feel comfortable about candidly responding, to tell you what they feel and why.

5. 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 glimpse at ways to get closer, say something intriguing and brief, so they want to ask you about it. Answer genially yet briefly, thus spurring a follow-up question, which you also answer briefly. 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 underlying concern or interest than if you had “taken charge,” even with good intent, to ask your own sequence of questions.

Tip: While we are taught to ask questions to show interest and learn more about someone, we often learn more, more deeply and quickly, when we spur that person to ask us questions.

6. What Opportunities and Daily Pleasures Are You Missing?

Want to solve a nagging, recurring problem or seek 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. You need these times, in motion, to “sidelong” glance at the periphery of your thoughts.

When you do a physical task, especially one that involves motion, sunshine and fresh air, your mind can move in multiple directions. Consider these tasks your “mental cross-training” to get deeper into your own psyche and imagination.

You’ll gain a second benefit from your labors. Beth Berg created a job out of designing and maintaining rich peoples’ 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 at Options and Pleasures in Your Life

• 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 what you don’t like in yourself.
• Hear your criticisms of others to see your inadequacies.
• Notice what you avoid to recognize what you need to learn next.
• Notice when and where you dabble, doodle and dawdle to see your dreams.