Listening Between the Lines

I had a great question from a person who had recently seen one of my shows.  He wanted to know how it would be possible to use people-reading skills during my routine where I have audience volunteers duct-tape my eyes  shut.  I explained that “people reading” included not only body language, but also listening.  Indeed, among the most useful skills of all is the ability to listen to not only what a person says, but what they’re holding back.

The questioner responded to me by asking what might happen if the person I’m speaking with has a monotone voice.  Would that shut me down?  The answer I gave was that it might, but that I also get a lot of information from listening to the responses of the people who are sitting near the person I’m ostensibly “mind-reading;”  people who very likely know that individual and what he or she might  be concentrating on.

I realize that my answers were vague, so I thought it might be fun to go into some more detail.  After all, sometimes it’s cool to peek behind the curtain.  Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the process I’m about to describe is the sole explanation behind my ‘thought-reading’ demonstrations.  Part of the fun of my work is that I’m able to weave different techniques in and out of one another, so it’s impossible to tell where one technique starts and another begins.  Another part of the fun is that as an entertainer I’m allowed to use any techniques available that might get me to where I need to go.  So I do have other skills and techniques that I draw upon, but I’m keeping them secret.  If I didn’t, there would be no mystery, would there?

The most important rule of communication is that it’s impossible to not communicate. Withholding information, for example, telegraphs valuable clues about the mindset of the person doing it.  It tells me either that they’re actively trying to hide something from me, or whether they’re thinking of something complicated enough that it’s impossible to describe all of it in a short response.

In the case of somebody speaking in a monotone, for example, it’s possible to infer that either they’re not an emotionally demonstrative person or that they’re trying to maintain a ‘poker voice’ if you will–the kind of voice that would give no clues.  In fact, the two would be pretty easy to distinguish.  The ‘poker voice’ would have elements of tension in it that the true monotone would not have.   In either case I can make educated guesses about the person’s behavior.  Past experience has shown me that emotionally inhibited people tend to focus on a relatively narrow range of “facts’ about themselves, and I have a very detailed mental list of the types of things usually included.  On the other hand, people who are taking pains to block me tend to focus on information they think would be difficult to guess, things they want to test me with. Luckily even these things fall into fairly predictable categories.  It turns out that when we think we’re being unique, most of us are being unique in pretty much the same way.

So we can see that even a monotone is likely to give me some information to work with.  If it doesn’t, or if the inferences I make turn out to be wrong, I can always move on.  But even if everybody spoke in precisely the same tone, there would still be plenty of clues available from other aspects of the voice.

I ask questions during my “thought-reading” presentations.  Although I make it clear that the questions are part of the process, sometimes people will refuse to answer, saying something like “you’re the mind-reader, you tell me.”  What they’ve just communicated to me is that they’re not going to be cooperative.  While that’s not exactly an earth shattering insight, it is possible to make all sorts of inferences about a person’s life from that information alone.  I could continue to ‘read’ this  individual, particularly spending time  on their personal relationships, for quite some time, but the interaction wouldn’t be entertaining or pleasant for anybody in the audience to follow.  Usually I’ll just pass this person by.

Even if the person doesn’t directly challenge  me, the speed of their response and the depth of their  response–whether they offer up additional information or whether they keep to very short replies–will generally tell me whether they’re cooperative, skeptical, suggestible, or willful.  Each of these attitudes can offer valuable clues about the general categories of material these people  chose to concentrate on.   From there I have a basis for a range of educated guesses and further probing.

The second most important rule about communication is that all communication is goal directed.  People choose their particular communication strategies because they serve some purpose.  Listening between the lines is largely the process of asking yourself what that purpose is.  If you can answer that question, it’s a very small step from understanding their personality type, their attitude toward what’s going on around them at the moment, and their attitude towards you.



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