If we can become more interested in one another’s real intentions, we can become better colleagues, better partners, better parents, better bosses, and better friends. That’s what this article is about: How to figure out what people really want — from you, from themselves, and from one another.
[Photo by Parker Knight]
“Words are deeds.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
The writer David Mamet said something that totally changed the way I interact with people in conversation.
“People may or may not say what they mean,” he explained, “but they always say something designed to get what they want.”
The more I think about that insight, the more I realize how deeply true it is. Mamet wasn’t just talking about how fictional characters work in stories, but about how human beings operate in the world.
What he understands is that people are driven by very real desires and needs, and everything they do — every action they take, every gesture they make, every word they say — is a way of satisfying those needs and desires.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t help but reveal our intentions, both positive and negative.
Words betray needs.
Which is really fascinating, if you think about it.
Because when it comes to social dynamics, we are what we want.
And since most of what we want is facilitated by words, we are what we say.
So everything people verbalize is packed with information — sometimes blatantly obvious, sometimes cleverly concealed — about what they really want.
Beneath the words, behind their motivation, you can find a treasure trove of data about what people are after.
Which means that if you can look past the literal meaning of language, and learn to read the matrix of goals that drive the people you interact with, you’ll have a huge advantage in this world.
That’s what this article is about: How to figure out what people really want — from you, from themselves, and from one another.
Hidden Conversations, Everywhere
As I write this, I’m sitting at one of those self-consciously cool cafes in San Jose. Exposed brick. Pour-over coffee. Windows looking out onto a bustling co-working space.
Next to me, a man and a woman are deep in conversation.
The guy, I’m guessing he’s about thirty, wearing a North Face fleece, is talking excitedly about his recent trip to Seoul. The gal, maybe late twenties, sharp eyes, listens carefully. When she talks, it’s with a quick, confident clip.
This might be a coffee meet-up, maybe some casual networking. Or it might be a date. Or it might be somewhere in between, and they’re trying to figure it out.
“Hands-down the most amazing place I’ve ever been,” says North Face. “I feel like things are really happening there. The companies I met with were amazing. The food was insane. I’m definitely going back.”
“You big on travel?” asks Sharp Eyes.
“Definitely. When I can get away from work.”
“I know what you mean. We’re trying to close our Series B, so it’s all hands on deck. I haven’t taken a real vacation in…two years? Yeah. Almost two years.”
She takes a pause, then winces playfully. “Is that bad?”
The conversation goes on.
They each keep up their side of it.
There’s very little silence.
But here — even in this tiny interaction — I’m getting clues about what these two people want. They’re strangers to each other, but they’re speaking volumes.
I ask myself why he brought up Seoul. What is it that North Face wants her to know about him?
That he’s well-traveled, for one thing. That he appreciates the business and cultural climate of the places he visits. But that he’s not just some guy who travels all the time. That he’s serious. That work is his priority.
And what does Sharp Eyes want him to know?
That she works hard too. That she values what he values. That she takes pride in her commitment to the company she works for. That the company is doing well. That it’s worth the sacrifice.
Even the lack of silence is meaningful. These are two people working to keep this conversation up. Which means they’re interested enough to not let their communication lapse.
So, lots of data flying around. Far more data than just the words.
That’s when they stand up to leave, and North Face reaches into his pocket.
“Well, we’re always looking at new investments,” he says, handing her his card. “Shoot me a note. Let’s keep talking.”
Just like that, the conversation makes total sense.
This wasn’t just a get-together. This was a mutual seduction.
They must have met while they were in line and ended up talking.
Realizing the other had something they wanted, they began the human dance of achieving that goal.
North Face was communicating that he’s a serious investor and a curious person. What he’s saying is, “Trust me. Share with me. Agree to talk to me again.”
Sharp Eyes was communicating that she’s worthy of venture capital. What she’s saying is, “Be interested in my company. Know that I’m a good entrepreneur. Make it easy for me to share.”
And whether this was professional or romantic, or some combination of the two, one overriding goal is clear: They both want to impress each other. They both want this — whatever “this” is — to work.
That’s the subtext of this conversation.
The words are just a vehicle.
“I love Seoul” doesn’t just mean “I love the capital of South Korea;” it means “I want you to know I travel well.”
“I haven’t taken a vacation in two years” doesn’t just mean “I work hard.” It means “I want you to understand that I’m a serious professional.”
And when she asked “Is that bad?” she wasn’t really asking “Do you think I work too hard?” She was saying “I want you to reassure me that I don’t work too hard,” or maybe “I want you to know that I’m not totally un-self-aware about the fact that I work too hard.”
Of course, I’m also using visual and emotional cues to parse the conversation — the tenor of his voice, the focus of her listening, his eye contact, her posture. All of this paints a picture of what’s happening beneath the surface.
Which is where true communication takes place.
Listening Beyond Words
Now that we know how packed our language is with hidden needs and desires, let’s talk about how, specifically, to analyze a conversation.
This framework will give you a set of tools to listen with a new ear to what people are saying, then mine their words for the really valuable stuff — their true motivations.
- Listen carefully to the words.
No matter what, we have to begin with the surface level of conversation. Even though we know people’s motivations exist beneath the words, words still matter, because they function as our window into that deeper meaning.
In the cafe conversation, the most significant words were “Seoul,” “travel,” “work,” “Series B,” “vacation,” “bad,” and “here’s my card.” As we saw, these words were meaningful, mostly because of the intentions behind them.
Small words, even those that seem irrelevant, are also important. Everything in conversation — a joke, an offhand remark, an ironic question, even an “um” or a pregnant pause — has meaning.
So take stock of the smaller moments in conversation, as well as the major ones. Remember that when it comes to what we say, nothing is accidental.
Because as we’re discovering, our words are driven by a goal (like me, fund me, date me, respect me, comfort me, etc.), which is in turn fueled by a need or a desire (to be liked, to be recognized, to be comforted, to be respected, to be actualized, etc.).
Since those needs and desires are real, and they’re driving us to open our mouths to speak, our words can never be totally meaningless. They’re all designed to get what we want, even (and especially!) when they’re subtle.
Listening, of course, is its own skill. I highly recommend revisiting our post on how to listen, then checking out this excellent interview we did with Julian Treasure about conscious listening. Both will give you a killer toolkit for being present, connected, and observant when people speak.
Which is the first step toward finding out what they really want.
- Ask why.
Now that you’re tracking the language in a conversation, ask yourself why this person is using these words at this moment.
Assuming that people are always trying to get something, use all the information available to you to penetrate to the deeper meaning of what they’re really saying.
The following questions will help you interpret what you’re hearing:
- Given my relationship to this person, what are these words designed to make me do or say?
- How might these words change our relationship?
- How does this conversation advance the goals or interests this person has?
- Which words or ideas is this person using? Do some seem to come up more than once?
- What happened recently that would explain why this person is saying this thing?
These questions are more of a guide than a fixed framework. More important than the questions themselves is the habit of being curious about what people really want.
As you listen, listen not just to the words but to the reasons behind those words. Over time, you’ll find yourself developing an ear for two layers of language: the text of what people say, and the subtext of what they want.
Which will make you a more active listener, a more informed interlocutor, and a more emotionally attuned conversationalist.
- Remain open to different interpretations.
As you learn to interpret what people say (and it really is like translating from one language to another — from the literal language of words to the obscure language of motivation) — you’ll often find multiple possible meanings in conversation.
That might be because people’s goals are mixed, or it might be because one of your interpretations is wrong.
Which is why it’s important to invite different interpretations, and to not get too attached to any one.
In the cafe conversation, for example, my first instinct was that North Face and Sharp Eyes were flirting with each other. When I learned that there was a possible professional relationship, the meaning of their conversation changed.
Of course, it could be both, which opens up multiple overlapping meanings — for example, the need to impress personally and professionally, and the desire to see each other again, so that they can determine exactly what the relationship is about.
In some cases you’ll intuit a meaning that just isn’t there.
The other day, for instance, I was on the phone with a friend who was complaining about a difficult new hire at his agency. After several months of training and feedback, his employee was still dropping the ball left and right. After a few minutes of angry venting, I thought to myself, “Oh — he wants me to reassure him that the situation is fixable.” When I started giving him advice, he stopped me. “Actually,” he confessed, “I was hoping you’d tell me it’s okay to let him go.”
That’s part of what’s so interesting about this process. There’s no such thing as a single, true motivation. Human beings are complex. They surprise you. They have multiple needs and desires, and those needs and desires are constantly evolving.
Human beings are also fallible, which means we can being wrong in our interpretations.
So try to remain in a state of observation and curiosity, always searching for people’s hidden meanings, but careful about subscribing to any single interpretation too quickly.
At the end of the day, our goal is not to jump to conclusions about what people want, but to better appreciate where they’re coming from. Analysis is just a means of understanding.
- Observe your reactions.
If people say things designed to get what they need, then your emotional response can tell you a great deal about what that need is.
For instance, if you’re talking with a friend in a troubled relationship, and you find yourself worrying about how to give advice, then you’re already responding — consciously or subconsciously — to your friend’s need.
If you also feel an emotional response arising — whether it’s guilt, fear, excitement, or compassion — then those feelings might also be a clue to your friend’s need (e.g., to share responsibility, to make you worry, to provoke your sympathy).
Our emotional reactions are not foolproof guides to other people’s intentions, but they can shed some light, because we as human beings respond emotionally to other people’s needs.
Observing your emotional reactions will also prevent other people from subtly influencing or controlling your behavior.
If you can become aware enough to notice when someone provokes a response in you — say, arousing your pity, entangling you in their drama, enlisting your help, or making you feel guilty, to name just a few — then you can work backwards to identify the need in them that is provoking your response.
That can help insulate you against toxic emotions and free you from the subtle and not-so-subtle ways people use — largely through language — to get what they want.
- Put your insight to good use.
Once you penetrate to the meaning of people’s words, the natural question becomes: What do I do with that?
In some cases, your insight into people’s psychology will be useful immediately.
For example, Mark, an AoC alum, recently told me about a conversation with his girlfriend, who was struggling with some anxiety about a difficult new boss at work.
After listening to her talk for a little while, he felt himself wanting to give her advice. Instead of sharing it right away, he took a step back and asked a really astute question.
“Would you like to start working through some of this stuff, or do you just need to vent right now?”
She thought about it, decided she just needed to vent, so he let her continue.
A few days later, when she was feeling more open to feedback, they had a great conversation about dealing with her anxiety and exploring some career moves.
In that exchange, Mark was listening not just to his girlfriend’s words, but to the much more significant needs behind those words. What I love about that story is how he put his awareness into immediate use by asking her what she really needed in the moment, which made him a better friend and partner.
Similarly, I remember coaching a listener a few years back, a salesman for a large engineering firm, who had noticed some approval-seeking behavior in himself.
We looked at his decisions — how he spoke to his boss, the way he interacted with his colleagues, how he responded to customers — and discovered that they were all designed to meet his hidden goal (which centered, unsurprisingly, on a very old and deep need to be liked).
What we found was that his need to be liked was overshadowing the needs of his colleagues (to succeed) and the needs of his customers (to be served) — which, if they were being met successfully, would actually make everyone like him!
By drilling down to those subconscious needs, we opened up an entirely new conversation, and transformed his relationship with his customers and teammates.
So figuring out what people really want can be extraordinarily useful in the moment.
In others cases, though, there will be nothing for you to do with your new insight except notice it, take stock of it, and let it inform your decision making.
If you pick up on a salesman’s goal to sell you something you don’t want, for example, it probably doesn’t make sense to talk through his deeper needs. If you realize that a prospective boss actually wants to torture his new employees, then you can simply pass on the job without explaining why.
The more you do this work, the more you’ll learn when to articulate your insights, and when those insights are simply meaningful to you.
Intuiting Your Own Needs
A few years ago, we started significantly upping the caliber of guests on The Art of Charm Podcast.
Suddenly, an incredible world of thinkers, writers, and celebrities opened up to me, and I found myself in conversation with some truly remarkable people.
The shift was exhilarating and terrifying. Imagine what it’s like to be genuinely inspired and totally intimidated at the same time, and you can begin to understand how I felt on the show for the better part of a year.
One morning, I was sitting across from Larry King at the Brooklyn Bagel Factory in L.A. The guy who had been on my television throughout my childhood was sitting across from me in the flesh, sharing old stories and giving me broadcasting advice. Pretty much a dream come true.
“So one night, Frank and I are having dinner,” he says, between bites of a bagel.
“Sorry — Frank who?” I ask.
And then Larry goes on to tell an amazing story about Frank Sinatra, which honestly I can’t remember because I couldn’t stop thinking, “Holy sh*t, Larry friggin’ King is telling me stories at the Brooklyn Bagel Factory right now.”
But I do remember what I said when he finished his story.
“That’s funny,” I began,” “because I was just having dinner with [insert important person here], and…”
And the punchline of the story is that I basically name-dropped someone famous and told a dumb story I’m pretty sure Larry King didn’t need to hear as I internally rolled my eyes at myself the entire time.
Not my finest moment.
Everything we’ve been talking about in this article applies to ourselves as much as it applies to other people.
Because what was I really saying when I felt the urge to tell that story?
I didn’t actually mean that I had dinner with so-and-so and talked about this-and-that.
What I wanted to achieve, in that moment, was a sense of confidence. A sense that I belonged at that table. If you were overhearing our chat from the next table over, you would have heard a guy saying, “You’re not wasting your time with me. I also know famous people. We run in the same circles. I belong.”
I wanted Larry to recognize me as a peer. I wanted to be reassured that I had a place at that table.
Which, of course, is absurd, because he invited me, and I was at that table!
(The irony of my telling you all of this isn’t lost on me. Yes, I’m name-dropping once again as I’m recounting this moment. But notice that what I wanted back then was to be taken seriously, and what I want now is for you to understand that I’ve dealt with this problem too. That we’re the same in that way. That I don’t want to feel alone in my embarrassment. That I’m not too proud to tell you about the harder parts of my journey.)
The hidden wants are always there. It’s our job to identify them, explore them, and be more in touch with the things we really want — good or bad.
So if you apply the framework above to your own interactions, you can begin to diagnose your own subconscious needs.
Once you discover a need or goal in a conversation, ask yourself a few questions.
- Is this a goal I actually want to achieve?
- Do I actually need this goal to be met?
- Is this the best way to achieve that goal?
- Can this person really help me meet this need? Should they?
- Would it be more helpful if I just came out and expressed the need itself?
- Is this need preventing me from being open to another possibility in this moment?
I asked myself all of those questions in the days after the Larry King moment. Knowing what I know now, I could have asked myself all of them before I opened my mouth. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to open it in the first place.
As important as it is to identify other people’s intentions, it’s even more important to understand our own. Not only because our own goals are parasitic upon other people’s, but because our needs quite literally run our life, in the form of words and actions. If you can listen to the needs beneath your language, you’ll instantly become a more empathic, more strategic, and more self-aware person in your everyday life.
Mamet’s principle is one of the most significant insights I’ve read about human communication.
Once you see it at work, though, it’s easy to become cynical about other people’s intentions.
Every word, every action, every gesture might suddenly seem designed to achieve something, which could make you adopt a pretty skeptical view of the world.
Which is why it’s important to remember that people’s goals and needs are not inherently bad or necessarily self-interested.
There’s nothing wrong with having a goal and chasing it.
There’s nothing wrong with having a need and trying to get it met.
Goals, wants, and needs can be positive or negative, overt or subtle, fair or demanding, healthy or toxic. These all depend on individual psychology, relationship, and circumstance. Just because people are trying to get what they want doesn’t necessarily make them selfish or manipulative. It makes them human.
What I hope this article allows you to do is to become more curious about the ways people interact with you, and how you interact with them.
If we can become more interested in one another’s real intentions, we can become better colleagues, better partners, better parents, better bosses, better friends.
We humans are a needy, goal-oriented bunch. We have to be equipped to speak the language of those needs and goals if we’re going to help one another — and ourselves — become the best people we can possible be.
That’s why we have to listen so carefully. That’s why the words we use matter.