The Critical 7 Rules To Understand People

My headline might sound overreaching. Clearly a rule can’t define something as complex as human behavior. But despite this, I’ve found most people tend to make the same mistakes. These mistakes are frequent enough that they create conflicts later. Remembering these seven rules will help you avoid these mistakes.

People Skills is About Being Nice, Friendly and Interesting, Duh!

Most the books I’ve read on dealing with people either make two claims:

  • Incredibly obvious stuff that most sensible people understand; even if they haven’t always mastered it. Things like be nice, be considerate, etc.
  • Bizarre and complex theories that may explain some behavior, but is difficult to generalize.

Between these two I’ve found there seems to be a gap of information that is can be applied generally, but isn’t always obvious. These frequent mistakes tend to cause most people conflicts, social errors and emotional upsets.

The Seven

Here are the seven rules I’m talking about:

Rule One: Never blame malice for what can easily be explained by conceit.

People don’t care about you. This isn’t because people are mean or hurtful, but simply because they are mostly focused on themselves. Consider this hypothetical pie-chart showing the variety of thoughts a typical person has:

Thought Chart

In this example, 60% of thoughts are self-directed. My goals. My problems. My feelings. Another 30% are directed towards relationships, but how they affect me. What does Julie think of me? How will boss evaluate my performance in the next review? Do my friends like me or see me as irritating?

Only 10% in this model is time spent in empathy. Empathy is the rare event where one person actually feels the emotions, problems and perspective of another person. Instead of asking what Julie thinks of me, I ask what is Julie thinking.

Within that 10%, most people then divide attention between hundreds of other people they know. As a result, you would occupy a fraction of a percentage in most peoples minds, and only a couple percentage points in a deeply bonded relationship. Even if you are in another persons thoughts, it is how your relationship affects them, not you.

What does this mean?

  • Embarrassment doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since others are only focusing a small portion of there thoughts onto judging you, your self-judgement is overwhelmingly larger.
  • People who appear to be mean or hurtful don’t usually do it intentionally. There are exceptions to this, but generally the hurt you feel is a side-effect, not the principle cause.
  • Relationships are your job to maintain. Don’t wait to be invited to parties or for people to approach you.

Rule Two: Few Social Behaviors are Explicit

Basically this rule means that most the intentions behind our actions are hidden. If a person is feeling depressed or angry, usually the resulting behaviors distort their true feelings. If I feel you snubbed me, I might hold my tongue but ignore you later.

The old joke is that women use words like, “fine,” and, “go ahead,” when they really feel the opposite. But I’ve noticed men do this too in polite situations, although often not in the same way.

The application of this rule is that you need to focus on empathy, not just hearing a person. Demonstrate trust, build rapport and learn to probe a bit. By focusing on empathy you can usually break away these subversions and get to the heart of the issue faster.

The other application of this rule is that most the time you feel something, nobody else knows about it. So don’t get angry when people aren’t responding to you. If you deceive your thoughts with your actions, don’t get angry when you fool people.

Rule Three: Behavior is Largely Dictated by Selfish Altruism

To say everyone is completely selfish is a gross exaggeration. That ignores all the acts of kindness, sacrifice and love that make the world work. But I would argue that most (not all, but most) behavior does work from the principles of selfish altruism.

Selfish altruism is basically win/win. It is where helping you directly or indirectly helps me. There are a couple main categories where this applies:

  1. Transactions – If I purchase a car, both myself and the dealer benefit. I get a vehicle, which I want. The dealer gets money to improve his lifestyle. This is the predominant form of selfish altruism between people who don’t have emotional bonds.
  2. Familial – Blood is thicker than water. We are designed to protect people who share our genes. This can sometimes shift towards extremely close friends and loved ones.
  3. Status – Helping someone is a sign of power. Many species of primates will offer assistance as a sign of dominance. People act similarly, offering aid to boost their self-esteem and reputation.
  4. Implied Reciprocity – Many relationships are based on the idea that if I help you, one day you will help me as well.

Occasionally behavior falls outside this group. Nameless heroes dying for causes that don’t help their bloodline. Volunteers devoting their time towards humanitarian missions. But these are the minority, whereas most actions can be explained by some form of selfish altruism.

How do you apply this rule? You understand the motives of people and appeal to them as if they were selfish. Find ways to help people within these four categories. Don’t expect people to offer aid outside of selfish altruism, it isn’t impossible, but it isn’t likely.

Rule Four: People Have Poor Memories

Ever been told someone’s name at a party and then forgot it later? Another rule of human behavior is that people have trouble remembering things. Especially information (as you’ll recall in rule one) that doesn’t apply to themselves. People are more likely to remember your similarities than your differences (unless they were emotionally incensed by them).

Recently I even broke this rule. I made arrangements to talk to a person I hadn’t met before on the phone. Even with my normally foolproof system of calendars and to-do lists, a few spontaneous schedule changes caused me to miss the call. I quickly apologized and made a new arrangement.

But the fact is most people don’t have organized GTD systems. People are forgetful by nature, so once again, don’t assume malice or disinterest if something is forgotten. The other side of this rule is that you can demonstrate reliability by having a good memory or system (if it doesn’t fail you).

Rule Five: Everyone is Emotional

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. But the core of the message is that people tend to have stronger feelings about something than they let on. People who regularly have outbursts of anger, depression or flamboyant enthusiasm are generally frowned upon in most cultures. This especially applies to men (for women trying to figure us out).

The application of this rule is to not assume everything is fine just because someone isn’t having a nervous breakdown. We all have our individual problems, angst and upsets that are normally contained. You don’t need to call people out on their private deception, but being sensitive to those underlying currents gives you an advantage in trying to help.

The alternate application of this rule is similar to rule two. People generally assume everything is fine unless you just had a blowup.

Rule Six: People are Lonely

This is another broad generalization. But it is amazing how many people who seem to have it all, suffer from bouts of loneliness. As social animals, I believe people are especially sensitive to any threats to becoming ostracized. In Neanderthal times, exile meant death, so loneliness and the desire to be with other people is a strong one.

The application of this rule is that loneliness is fairly common, so in that sense, you really aren’t alone. I used to be bothered when I felt alone or an outsider in a social group. Although I’m still human, I’ve found recognizing this feeling to be fairly common as a way to minimize it.

Rule Seven: Did I Mention People Are Self-Absorbed?

This may sound like a reiteration of rule one, but I believe the applications extend beyond relationships and your emotional state. The fact that people tend to be too concerned about themselves to give you much attention, that people tend to be lonelier, more emotional and feel differently than they let on applies to how you view the world.

If anything this perspective should make you more proactive and independent. Once I started really learning these rules, it made far more sense that I needed to take charge. By placing your individual happiness in the hands of another person (or people), you ignore all these rules and do so at your own peril.

I like to take an optimistic, but realistic view of people. People who are generally try their best, but make mistakes and suffer from unintended self-absorption. In other words, they are basically like you.

  • Mike

    Confronting them does nothing because in their mind they are right and you are wrong. This is the society in which we live. Such behaviors are learned as children, and if there were a time to correct it, it would be then.

  • Susan June

    Scott, I am super intrigued by the selfish altruism point on helping as a form of dominance. I would like more information on this aspect of behavior.

  • Susan June

    Scott, I am super intrigued by the selfish altruism point on helping as a form of dominance. I would like more information on this aspect of behavior.

  • Nina

    Loved this

  • Nina

    Loved this

  • Bill

    I have to agree with Seabird. It’s a choice. Love is an action. Gratitude should lead us to wantonthink and help others – not personal gain or the feel good aspect. This will eventually destroy society.

  • Bill

    I have to agree with Seabird. It’s a choice. Love is an action. Gratitude should lead us to wantonthink and help others – not personal gain or the feel good aspect. This will eventually destroy society.

  • sanja

    Yes but you feel good because you repaid them and done the right thing

  • sanja

    Yes but you feel good because you repaid them and done the right thing

  • Noreen Vance

    I Have to agree he nailed that one!

  • p1ngu

    Wouldnt that still mean that you help them just because youll feel better? Thats still basically using a person for your own good.

  • Shaolin Westerner

    Oh wow. What a truely fantastic bit of work. Wonderful job Scott. You’re a warrior of Light my friend

  • Shaolin Westerner

    truly* 😉

  • That thing

    Whats wrong with that just because you gained from it, doesnt mean the person who was helped suddenly becomes on done. Unless you brag about it and that person see’s that intent.

  • humanfamily

    Thank you for your explanations here. Yes, give and take in relationships is a social game for the majority of the population. I think some people genuinely try to be selfless (not very many, but some.) If you are like this, the problem is in expecting others, even friends and family members, to have the same attitude. Unfortunately, if you want people to help you, you need to appeal to their self-interest. I appreciate your message about people not responding mainly to reason (on another post?) I have tried this, it almost never works; people have to EXPERIENCE on some more primal level that there is something in it for them.

  • kaka

    I used to have a coworker who lead my team. He took all the important work and gave us the easy to do ones. And on occassions when we get some real work, we rely on him because we have no clue on how to do it. He makes us depend on him but for us it feels like he is so smart and helpful.

  • Wendy Hicks

    If your field of work is related to peoples welfare, then you are very much aware of others feelings and needs. It becomes part of who you are and shows others up for their lack of regular empathy and kindness/care. Narcissistic behavior seems to be growing in the modern world.

  • Martin

    No they would not be stupid, not everyone have the same view and would maybe intepret the words diffrently, or just simply articulate themselves diffrently. You should not be so quick to judge. This article clarify things and could most deffinently be of use to alot of people who hat a diffrent idea about this.

  • Martin

    I would like to change the above statement (made by me) a bit to where it seem less opposing (i was guest when i postet it so i cant Edit it now).
    “No they would not be stupid” to;
    “In my oppinion they would not be stupid”

  • T.C.

    I’m not an English expert.
    I’m not a writer.
    Hell, this isn’t even my first language.

    But when I read an article by someone who does it for a living, and I see extremely easy grammatical errors, or bad sentence structure, the whole article tends to lose credibility for me.

    Please proof read your work.
    Or have someone do it for you.

  • Anony

    Get over it, this is the world we live in today. Even the greatest of scholars today are being thwarted by auto correct and other modern technology aspects we all at some point don’t always identify with. I myself have re-read my own works 5 times thinking I covered everything only to be pointed out later I missed a comma or was running a sentence or missed a word here or there.

    It would be nice to have your criticism in these comments come with some positive, like I enjoyed reading the article’s content but due to poor grammar I was lost on certain topics.

    You offer great criticism to the author but please offer a slight hint of “hey I liked this or didn’t” instead of simply saying you suck at writing, have someone read it for you.