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Law 3: See Through People’s Masks (The Laws of Human Nature)

Law 3: See Through People's Masks (The Laws of Human Nature) 1
Milton Erickson

The Law of Role Playing

People wear masks. Every person must adjust the way they behave to the circumstances they are and the audience they are speaking to. You cannot interact with your boss the same way you do with your wife. If each person was the same way with everyone, if they were 100% authentic, they would be socially isolated rather quickly. But the masks that people wear, as robust as they are, have small cracks. These reveal our true intentions, what lies beneath the surface of the fake exterior.

As children, we possessed a natural gift for bullshit detection. Whenever someone had an exaggerated expression on their face, we either imitated them or made fun of them. As we grew up, we became more self-conscious. We turned inward because we worried about what people thought of us. This blinded us to the deception of others. We should rekindle the childhood skills that we once possessed. 

If we focus, we can detect anomalies in body language, tells that can reveal what people are really thinking. But we must catch them quickly because they will immediately conceal their initial reactions. For example, a person may roll their eyes while you speak about something they are not interested in before they quickly cover it with a smile. 

It’s easy to fake a nonchalant demeanor. You only need to act calm and relaxed. But when someone is triggered in the right way, they inadvertently reveal what they are trying to hide. 

King Louis of France used to use these triggers to his advantage. Everyone in his court was trying to fool him, wearing fake smiles and showering him with insincere compliments – because they had no choice. Louis knew that he had to catch them off guard to know their real intentions. He would devise clever tactics to do this. Sometimes, he would share a small piece of good news or bad news and immediately observe the reactions on the faces of his listeners. And when people thought he was absent, he would appear out of nowhere and surprise them – the courtiers would have little time to mold a scripted response and would reveal a crucial piece of information in their reactionary gestures, looks, voices. 

A paralyzed Milton Erickson, who would later become a therapist, used to out of sheer boredom study the patterns of behavior of his sister, while he laid down on his bed. He noticed that their tones would not match the content of their messages. A dry “yes” often meant a concealed “no.” Fascinated by this, he devoted many hours to studying human behavior. Eventually he become so good that he could decipher people’s darkest secrets by noticing a peculiarity in their behavior.

There are things to look out for generally when interacting with people. If someone likes you and is comfortable around you, they will stand closer to you, and not be protective of their body parts by folding their arms. In their tone of voice, you can sense playfulness, a high-pitched sound, and variation. If they are indifferent and uninterested, you’ll hear a more monotonous, quiet tone.

If someone has deeper feelings for you such as love, their pupils would dilate and their eyes would widen, a rush of blood to their face will animate them, their lips will seem full and exposed. 

A person who genuinely smiles will exhibit crow feet on the edge of their eyes, and their cheeks will rise. When they are being dishonest, their cheeks won’t move.

To identity people who are secretly hostile to you, notice how they press their lips inward until it appears that they have no lips, or how they abruptly turn their attention towards something else in mid conversation, or how their legs will shift in a direction away from you. A despondent look followed by a brief smile is another sign of antagonism. 

But it is important to recognize that while these tells are useful, they can be misleading and ambiguous. Context is very important. Depending on who the person is and what they are like, different behaviors will mean different things. Look for consistent patterns of behavior and watch out for anomalies, that is what Erickson did, and it is what any student of human nature ought to do.

Read The Laws of Human Nature

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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