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Why Did They Do That?!

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Practical tools from psychology to help you better understand people and their behaviour

Have you ever been just mystified by someone?

You think you know them and then... wham! They blindside you. If you're anything like me, you've sometimes asked yourself questions like:

  • "What do they mean by what they said?"
  • "Why did they do that?"
  • "Why do I get the feeling they are not being straight with me - or haven't I got the whole picture here?"

But once you really absorb what I'm saying here you'll have the key, or even - dare I say it - a set of keys, for unlocking other people's mysterious behaviour.

But first things first. To understand people, we need to really see them.

Seeing others clearly

Dr Milton Erickson, the most celebrated hypnotherapist of the 20th century, recommended we look more than listen when attempting to understand people.

One way to become less mystified by others is to develop powers of social observation. Most of the time we don't need to analyze other people, but just enjoy being with them.

But it's also true that other people can be baffling sometimes, and getting better at observing others and reading their intentions can improve your personal and professional life - and sometimes help you to help them.

But before we get going, there's a caveat.

Trust others, but trust your instincts too

We shouldn't assume people never mean what they say, or that there is always some underlying subtext or agenda. We can often take people at face value.

Most of the time I relax with people. I don't constantly think, "Ah, what did they really mean by that?" But sometimes you feel your instincts kick in, and those are the times to be open to the possibility that the person may be communicating or 'leaking' unconscious (as well as conscious) information.

The unconscious messages people transmit often get masked by what they communicate consciously, but we can learn to be open to both.

Conscious and unconscious communication

Everybody has an 'unconscious' (sometimes called 'subconscious') mind as well as a 'conscious' one - and the two aren't necessarily always on the same page.1

Sometimes people consciously think they are doing one thing while in fact they are really, unconsciously, doing something else. We none of us have absolute total self-knowledge all the time, and just sometimes other people can read our actions and true intentions better than we ourselves can.

If you feel you've picked up some kind of communication from someone that they didn't seem to intend, it doesn't necessarily mean they were intentionally lying to you. People sometimes lie to themselves, often without even realizing it. So when there's a disconnect between what you are picking up from someone and what they think they are communicating to you, it may be that they don't actually know their own mind.

So how might this disconnect present itself?

It's not what you say, it's the way you say it

I remember a female client who kept telling me she was happily married. But every time she said it, she frowned and sounded flat. It was a noticeable pattern. Now it wasn't that I didn't believe what she told me. The fact was I just didn't know, so I couldn't form an opinion. But I did wonder whether she might not be giving me the whole picture. And I wasn't surprised when I heard she'd gotten divorced not long after.

When you instinctively feel there's a disconnect between what someone says and the way they say it- their tone of voice, body language, or facial expression - it may be time to look a little deeper. But be mindful that they may not actually know their own unconscious motivations - at least not all the time.

There's another common sign that someone may not be being straight with themselves, and therefore with you.

The lady doth protest too much

I remember introducing a female friend to one of my male friends at a party some years ago. He has quite a strong personality, and she seemed to take an instant dislike to him. Or did she? A strong reaction is still a strong reaction, whichever end of the spectrum it falls on.

She said she found him appalling. But I detected an attraction. When she said "appalling", did she really mean "appealing"?

To me there seemed to be a kind of disconnect between what she said she felt about him and what she really seemed to feel. But as is wise at such times, I kept my suspicions to myself!

Still, I couldn't help but notice how she looked whenever his name was mentioned. I began to notice a pattern. Every time I mentioned him, a tiny smile would appear on her face for just the briefest of moments, before she would reiterate - more forcibly than ever! - how much she couldn't stand him.

I didn't argue with her, partly because I think consciously she really was unaware of her attraction to him, even as her unconscious mind somehow always seemed to conspire to drag her to the same social events as him, and at the same time.

She seemed genuinely surprised when, as she put it, she "suddenly" started to like him. But to me it was clear she'd liked him from the start - she just hadn't twigged to it yet. And, you guessed it, they've now been happily married for ten years.

So what are we to make of this kind of thing?

The congruence of words and deeds

As I said, it's not that we should never take people's words at face value. People are often quite straightforward, and there's no need to look for complication when it's not there. I think it's more that we should just be attuned to the other ways people communicate. People communicate with their voice tonality, their expressions, their eyes, and their bodies.

So we can look to see if someone's unconscious communication accords with their conscious communication. My friend's unconscious communication told me she was attracted to this man, even as her conscious communication told me she didn't want him in her life. So her communication was incongruent.

Always remember not just to listen to what people say, but also to watch what they do. Look for congruence, or more importantly, lack thereof. Is there incongruence between the words someone is saying and the actual behaviour they are displaying?

If someone says they can't stand somebody, but always seems to turn up wherever that certain somebody happens to be, that shows incongruence. If they tell you they are "passionate" about a project but don't actually get on with it, that too shows incongruence. They are saying one thing with their words and another (much more real) thing with their actions.

Tuning in to incongruence

Being a hypnotherapist and having had the privilege of observing hundreds of people one to one, I have learned to really look - I mean really observe people, not just listen to them.

Incongruence between what a client says and what they unconsciously communicate may reveal their true motivation and areas that may need to be focused on during therapy.

For example, I recall a man who would always, albeit only for a split second, wince when telling me how much he enjoyed his work. He was telling me one thing with his words, but another with his face! This wincing was a prime example of what's known as a 'microexpression' - it was literally as quick as a blink. But it was undoubtedly there.

A client may, almost imperceptibly, shake their head and sigh every time they mention their partner, even while telling you their relationship is good. Or you might see a microexpression of fear cross someone's face as they tell you how much they are looking forward to starting a new job.

People communicate in all kinds of ways, and we can practise being more attuned to this. But it's important to stay your judgement.

Don't rush to judgement

When you start to become more attuned to incongruence, remember the wise words of psychologist Paul Ekman, who has probably done more research on tiny, fleeting, unconscious facial expressions than anyone else in history.

He rightly warns us not to assume we know with absolute certainty what someone is really thinking, but just to be aware of patterns. A single, fleeting expression of fear doesn't tell you anything much. But if you keep noticing this microexpression, it could be that you have spotted something normally concealed, even from the person themselves. But even then, don't assume!

I think sometimes it's more respectful to others to avoid directly saying what you think someone really means, or what you suspect they are really thinking. That friend of mine who was attracted to her future husband but didn't know it at first would not have taken kindly to me telling her it was clear she liked him. She needed to come to that realization in her own way and in her own time.

So we've established that people 'speak' not just with their words but also with their faces. We can also get hints as to what people are really thinking from what they don't say, and even - as you are about to see - from behaviours that we don't normally think of as communication at all.

The magic of metaphor

The unconscious mind deals not just in facts but also in metaphors, so the way it expresses our feelings - which we may or may not be consciously aware of - can, at times, be rather surprising. Sometimes the unconscious mind even goes so far as to conjure physical symptoms as a way of communicating our true feelings.

Years ago I was running a workshop on solution-focused hypnotherapy. Attending this training was a traditionally trained psychiatrist who was well versed in all the older-style, Freudian approaches to psychotherapy. She had been trained to believe that the best way to treat her patients was to continually and exclusively dig into their pasts and focus on what had gone wrong, rather than amplifying their strengths, resources, and positive goals. As she sat in my audience listening, I began to notice an odd pattern of behaviour.

Choking on new ideas

This psychiatrist would verbally agree with my points, and seemed to be accepting my ideas about positive psychology, yet whenever I started to talk about newer methods of treating psychological problems she would start coughing, sometimes to the point that she momentarily disrupted the session or even had to leave the room.

The weird thing was that she didn't seem to feel the need to cough at any other time. Actually, she appeared to be in perfect health. This got me thinking - what might a cough mean, metaphorically? If you think about it, when we cough we are trying to eject something we don't want inside us, are we not?

I could definitely sense some incongruence between what this woman said she felt and what she really seemed to feel.

Sure enough, after she had trained with us over the course of several months, she happened to mention over lunch one day how she had, at first, found our ideas on psychology "hard to swallow". As soon as she said this, her coughing fits from the earlier workshops sprang to mind. Indeed, at times the cough had been severe enough to make her almost choke.

If my guess about the real nature of her coughing was correct, then her unconscious mind was busy trying to communicate honestly to us - as well as to her - its real feelings about our new approaches.

The point here is that people communicate metaphorically as well as literally, and sometimes this can go as far as an actual physical response. Of course, if someone has a physical symptom it should be checked out medically just in case. But sometimes the symptom follows a pattern so distinct that it can't be ignored.

The mysterious weekend sickness

I once worked with a man who would vomit every weekend. He couldn't understand why he felt sick only on Saturdays and Sundays, but fine the rest of the week. With a little further questioning, I found out that his mother-in-law often came to stay for the weekend. In fact, it seemed she was around nearly every weekend.

Of course, he hadn't seen the connection. This was a side issue and not the main reason he had come for therapy, but at one point he finally admitted to me (and it seemed a revelation even to him!) that he was - note the language - "rather sick" of his mother-in-law always coming to stay.

Paradoxically, sometimes the metaphorical mind can be rather literal. So-called 'organic' - or let's call them 'physical' - metaphors, like not being able to swallow something or feeling sick of something, might seem extreme and rather obvious, but I suspect people communicate with physical metaphors much more frequently than we commonly suppose.

Look out for metaphors

For example, if someone is disgusted by what they're talking about, you might see them make tiny brushing movements with their fingers, as if they are trying to wipe away some repugnant substance. This may be quite subtle, possibly even minimal enough to qualify as a microexpression.

Or someone might raise their chin and literally 'look down their nose' when they talk about someone they secretly feel superior to.

When trying to interpret people's true feelings, consider that they may be communicating metaphorically, possibly even through a physical metaphor. This is another reason why it's so important not just to pay attention to what people say but to really watch what they do as well.

Of course, people do use verbal metaphors as well. All the time, actually. Many of these are simply picked up (to use a metaphor!) from other people. But certain verbal metaphors may strike you as curious. And these metaphors are often accidental, or at least they seem that way to the conscious mind.

"He likes to wear his hate"

We all mispronounce sometimes, but if someone mispronounces a particular word repeatedly, or in a certain way, you may start to sense that their metaphorical mind might be trying to get a message out past their conscious mind.

I once spoke to a elderly woman who brought up the subject that many men no longer wear hats. She also told me that she and her husband both had children from previous marriages. As she continued telling me that, in her opinion, men didn't wear hats as much as they used to, she said something that immediately made me take note.

"Mind you, my husband always wears his hate when we see my children!"

Yes, I was sure she'd said "hate" instead of "hat". I didn't think anything of it at first, but then she repeated it and it still sounded like "hate". When I later spoke to her husband, it wasn't a shock to hear him complain at length about her children.

As important as it is to become familiar with the ways people communicate, we must also seek to understand what may be unconsciously driving their words and behaviour.

You can't always get what you want - but you'll try darn hard

You may have heard it said that any attention is better than no attention. Children (and some adults!) may act up in order to get any attention, even if it's disapproval.

Many baffling human behaviours can be traced back to the (often unconscious) drive to gain attention, which can cause all kinds of problems and confusions when people aren't aware that they are in fact striving for attention.

But we don't just have a drive for attention. We have an array of emotional needs which, if not met adequately, may spill out and seek completion through inappropriate means. For example, if someone's needs for status or control aren't met adequately (or if their needs have turned into greeds), they may seek to control other people all the time or try to 'score points' in social situations through one-upmanship.

Much strange or so-called 'difficult' behaviour becomes readily understandable once we consider what need that behaviour might be clumsily - and unconsciously - trying to meet.

So learn about, remember, and always consider the basic, 'primal' emotional needs we all share. When someone is acting bizarrely or 'out of character', seek to understand what hidden need they might be trying to meet. Read my 'Dark Side of the Human Needs Series' to really get a sense of how these unconscious drives can mess with people's behaviour and cause the world problems.

And talking of problems...

People are the sum of their pasts

If someone reacts really strongly to something and it shocks you, it might be because they are 'starving' as far as an important emotional need is concerned, and are desperate to meet that need any way they can. Or it may be because they are pattern matching strongly to some past event or learning.

The brain perceives reality through pattern matching. Some trigger or stimulus in reality matches to a pattern within us. Some of this is hardwired, as when a baby matches the action of sucking to the pattern of a nipple being presented. And some of it is learned, as when a person matches having a cup of coffee to smoking a cigarette after repeatedly experiencing these two events at the same time.

Even at this very moment, you are matching the pattern of every word you read to your understanding of that word. So pattern matching is constant, and it can be useful in that it reduces the load on the conscious mind by making some automatic assumptions. But sometimes it causes us problems.

In fact, all psychological problems can be seen to involve inappropriate pattern matching in some form. For example, during a life-threatening experience your mind creates pattern matches between the details of the incident and the fear you feel at the time. From then on, anything that even resembles one of those details will be enough for that fear to come racing back, as real as if it were happening all over again.

Someone mugged by an assailant dressed in black may later find that they feel fearful whenever they see anyone dressed in black. The black clothes have become a 'metaphorical stand-in' for the experience of being assaulted, just as a dummy is a metaphorical stand-in for a mother's nipple (and therefore a faulty pattern match).

So if someone becomes really embarrassed, or defensive, or angry, it may be because they are linking a current pattern of experience to some past learning. When emotional conditioning plays out like this, it may have little to do with logic or even thinking. Phobias, PTSD, and addictions all exist due to learned pattern matching. If you'd like to learn more about how pattern matching works, you can listen to a discussion on it here.

Now this may all seem a bit complex, but it's actually a lot simpler than it appears. And once you truly understand these points, you'll find you won't have to think too hard about other people's baffling behaviour, because explanations will occur to you spontaneously. People can be puzzles, but all puzzles can be solved - and often much more easily than you may have thought. You just need to know the method.

So I've highlighted:

  • the importance of remembering that people have conscious and unconscious minds, and looking for congruence between what they say and what they do
  • the way people metaphorically communicate their true feelings or intentions
  • the importance of understanding how the drive to meet unfulfilled emotional needs may dominate a person, especially when those needs are not met adequately in day-to-day life
  • how a person's past and the process of pattern matching can produce seemingly bizarre or excessive reactions.

Sometimes it really is more about them than you.

How to understand people better

Not only will our online course Uncommon Hypnosis teach you the incredibly subtle communication skills of hypnosis, but you’ll also discover a whole new way to understand why people behave the way they do. Read more here.

References

  1. Every second, our five senses take in an estimated eleven million pieces of information. We know this because scientists (yes, scientists!) have painstakingly counted the receptor cells on each sense organ and the nerves that connect them to the brain. Yet we can only consciously process about forty bits of information a second. What this means is that large parts of our experience are unavoidably unconscious. See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Biology-Belief-Unleashing-Consciousness-Miracles/dp/1848503350
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Personal Development