When my client visited the institute, the director took him outside, pointed to the massive, rocky hills that rose up behind the offices, and said softly, "There are a lot of them out today." My client squinted up at the brown hills, trying to hide his amazement—not at the beauty of the bighorn sheep, but at his inability to see even one of them. Obviously accustomed to this reaction, the director tactfully called his attention to a sheep just below a triangular rock, and another on the crest of a hill to the left, and then another—until he'd pointed out almost a dozen.
The director's eyesight was no better than my client's. But he had learned to see the sheep. He knew how their shape broke the subtle patterns of the hills. He could detect the slight difference between their color and that of the rock. He had learned where the sheep were most likely to gather at a particular time of day. He had experience. He had contact. He had practice. What was virtually automatic to him was foreign to my client—until he, too, learned to see the sheep.
In the courtroom, I constantly watch jurors, witnesses, lawyers, spectators, and even the judge, looking for any clues about how they're responding to the case and the people presenting it. I listen carefully to the words that are spoken, and to how they are spoken. I pay attention to the way people breathe, sigh, tap their feet or fingers, or even shift their weight in a chair. As the jurors walk by, I notice any unusual smells—heavily applied perfume, body odor, the scent of medication. When I shake someone's hand, I take note of the feel of his handshake. I use all of my senses, all of the time.
Observing people properly takes time. Most people simply don't take enough time to gather information and reflect upon it. Instead, they frequently make critical decisions about people in a hurry, as if life were a game show in which quick answers scored more points. It's usually the other way around in life: quick answers are often wrong— and lose points.
Quick answers aren't necessary most of the time, anyway. You'll find that you often have more time to make up your mind about people than you think you do. Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man's legs should be; he responded, "Long enough to reach the ground." Likewise, the question "How much time does it take to read people?" can be answered: "As much time as you have." There is seldom a premium on the speed with which we read people; most deadlines for decision making are self-imposed. If you take all the time you really have available, you'll usually have as much as you need. If you're offered a job, the offer probably won't vanish if you ask for a few days to think about it. You seldom need to make a decision about a doctor, lawyer, accountant, day-care provider, mechanic, or purchase on the spur of the moment. So don't! Ask yourself what information would help you make the best choice, and then take the time to gather it. If you're still not sure, sleep on it.
In almost every jurisdiction in the country, the judge cautions jurors at the beginning of the trial that they must not decide the case until all the evidence has been presented. This concept has been ingrained in the law for hundreds of years, and for good reason. Just as you can't solve a riddle without all the clues, you can't make wise decisions about people if you act prematurely. To be successful, you must be patient.