If you want to become a better people-reader, you must make a conscious effort to engage other people. Even the most entrenched Internet junkie can learn the true meaning of "chat" if the desire is there, but you have to get off the couch and make it happen. Work those atrophied muscles, even if it makes you feel inconvenienced, awkward, or vulnerable.
To practice and develop your people skills, start by becoming aware of how and when you make personal contact. For the next week, each time you have the opportunity to communicate with someone, enhance the quality of that communication by moving up at least one rung on the contact ladder:
1. Face-to-face meeting
2. Telephone call
3. Letter/fax/e-mail/answering machine
Instead of asking someone else to set up an appointment for you, contact the person yourself by letter, fax, or e-mail. Instead of text messaging on your BlackBerry or e-mailing your cross-country friend, call, even if the conversation has to be brief. Instead of phoning your neighbor to discuss the school fund-raiser, knock on her door and talk to her in person. Step by step, you'll become more comfortable with the increased contact.
Try to improve the quality of your communication, too, by making a conscious effort to reveal something of yourself. It doesn't have to be an intimate secret—in fact, many people will be turned off if you inappropriately reveal confidences. But you can share a like or dislike, a favorite restaurant, book, or movie. And ask something about the other person—where she bought a piece of jewelry, or whether he saw the ball game last night. Warm them up, and the conversation will start rolling.
After a few weeks, you'll become more adept at these social skills. Test yourself on the person checking your groceries, the receptionist in your doctor's office, the mail carrier, the next customer who walks into the shop. Connecting doesn't have to mean a ten-minute discussion. It can mean simply looking someone in the eye, smiling, and commenting on the weather. These brief sparks of contact aren't superficial, they're sociable, and they are where trust and communication—and people reading—begin.
Learn to See the Sheep
The more time you spend reading people, the easier it gets. Just as the anxiety and awkwardness of your first time behind the wheel of a car disappeared after a few months of everyday driving, people-reading skills that may seem unattainable today will become automatic with a little practice.
With willpower and persistence, we can sharpen any of our senses. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than an experience a client of mine had several years ago. He'd been hired by the Bighorn Institute, a facility dedicated to preserving an endangered species of bighorn sheep that live in the mountains just southwest of Palm Springs, California. Development of neighboring land was disturbing the sheep and interrupting their breeding activity; the institute wanted to do something about it.