Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m with you on this journey to learn. Have you ever noticed that what people say is not the same as what they mean? Today I will share an inspiring story I read this week, something counterintuitive I’ve learned and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to better see behind people’s masks to get to what’s really happening. Let’s begin.
If you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, teach the ideas in this episode to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours.
One morning in August 1919, 17 year old Milton Erickson, future pioneer in hypnotherapy and one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, awoke to discover parts of his body suddenly paralyzed. Over the next few days, the paralysis spread. He was soon diagnosed with polio, a near epidemic at the time. As he lay in bed, he heard his mother in another room discussing his case with two specialists the family had called in. Assuming Erickson was asleep, one of the doctors told her the boy will be dead by morning.
His mother came into the room, clearly trying to disguise her grief, unaware that her son had overheard the conversation. Erickson kept asking her to move the chest drawers near his bed over here, over there. She thought he was delusional, but he had his reasons. He wanted to distract her from her anguish and he wanted the mirror on the chest position just right. If he began to lose consciousness, he could focus on the sunset in the reflected mirror holding onto this image as long as he could. The sun always returned. Maybe he would as well, proving the doctors wrong. Within hours, he fell into a coma.
I’m reading here verbatim from the rather marvelous book, The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Green, and I’ll continue the story, also, just reading.
“Erickson regained consciousness three days later, somehow he had cheated death, but now the paralysis had spread to his entire body. Even his lips were paralyzed. He could not move or gesture nor communicate to others in any way. The only body parts he could move where his eyeballs allowing him to scan the narrow space of his room. Quarantined in the house on the farm in rural Wisconsin where he grew up, his only company was his seven sisters, his one brother, his parents, and a private nurse.”
“For someone with such an active mind, the boredom was excruciating, but one day as he listened to his sisters talking among themselves, he became aware of something he had never noticed before. As they talked, their faces made all kinds of movements and the tone of their voices as they talked, their faces made all kinds of movements and the tone of their voices seem to have a life of its own.”
“One sister said to another, yes, that’s a good idea, but she said this in a monotone and with a noticeable smirk, all of which seemed to say, I actually don’t think it’s a good idea at all. Somehow a yes could really mean no.”
“Now he paid attention to this. It was a stimulating game. In the course of the next day, he counted 16 different forms of no that he heard, indicating various degrees of hardness, all accompanied by different facial expressions.”
“At one point he noticed one sister saying yes to something while actually shaking her head. No. It was very subtle, but he saw it. If people said yes, but really felt no, it appeared to show up in their grimaces, in their body language. On another occasion, he watched closely from the corner of his eye as one sister offered another an apple, but the tension in her face and tightness in her arms indicated she was just being polite and clearly wanted to keep it for herself.”
“This signal was not picked up, and yet it seemed so clear to him. Unable to participate in conversations he found his mind completely absorbed in observing people’s hand gestures, their raised eyebrows, the pitch of their voices and the sudden folding of their arms. He noticed, for instance, how often the veins in his sister’s necks would begin to pulsate when they stood over him indicating the nervousness they felt in his presence. Their breathing patterns as they spoke to him fascinated him and he discovered that certain rhythms indicated boredom and were generally followed by a yawn.”
“Hair seemed to play an important role with his sisters. A very deliberate brushing back of the strands of her hair would indicate impatience, I’ve heard enough now, please shut up, but a quicker, more unconscious stroke could indicate a tension. Trapped in bed, his hearing became more acute. He could now pick up on conversations in the other room where people were not trying to put on a pleasant show in front of him, and soon he noticed a peculiar pattern in a conversation. People were rarely direct. A sister could spend minutes beating around the bush, leaving hints to others about what she really wanted, such as to borrow an article of clothing or hear an apology from someone. Her hidden desire was clearly indicated by her tone of voice, which gave emphasis to certain words. Her hope was that the others would pick up on this and offer what she desired, but often the hints were ignored and she would be forced to come out and say what she wanted.”
“Conversation after conversation fell into this recurring pattern. Soon it became a game for him to guess within as few seconds as possible what the sister was hinting at. It was as if in his paralysis, he had suddenly become aware of a second channel of human communication, a second language in which people express something from deep within themselves sometimes without being aware of it. What would happen if he could somehow master the intricacies of this second language? How would it alter his perception of people? Could he extend his reading powers to the nearly invisible gestures people made with their lips, their breath, the level of intention in their hands?”
“One day, several months later, as he sat near a window in a special reclining chair, his family had designed for him, he listened to his brother and sisters playing outside. He had regained movements in his lips and could speak, but his body remained paralyzed. He wanted so desperately to join them as if momentarily forgetting his paralysis. In his mind, he began to stand up and for a brief second, he experienced the twitching of a muscle in his leg, the first time he had felt any movement in his body at all.”
“The doctors had told his mother he would never walk again, but they had been wrong before. Based on this simple twitch, he decided to try and experiment. He would focus deeply on a particular muscle in his leg, remembering the sensation he had before his paralysis, wanting badly to move it and imagining it functioning again. His nurse would massage the area and slowly with intermittent success, he would feel a twitch and then the slightest bit of movement returning to the muscle. Through this excruciatingly slow process, he taught himself to stand, then take a few steps, then walk around his room, then walk outside increasing the distances.”
“Somehow by drawing upon his willpower and imagination, he was able to alter his physical condition and regain complete movement. Clearly, he realized the mind and the body operate together in ways we are hardly aware of wanting to explore this further, he decided to pursue a career in medicine and psychology, and in the late 1920s he began to practice psychiatry in various hospitals.”
“Quickly, he developed a method that was completely his own and diametrically opposed to others, trained in his field. Almost all practicing psychiatrists focused largely on words. They would get patients to talk, particularly going over their early childhood. In this way, they hoped to gain access to their patients unconscious. Erickson instead focused mostly on people’s physical presence as an entree into their mental life and unconscious words are often used as a coverup, a way to conceal what is really going on.”
“Making his patients completely comfortable. He would detect signs of hidden tension and unmet desires that came through in his face, voice and posture. As he did this, he explored in greater depth the world of nonverbal communication. His motto was Observe, observe, observe. For this purpose, he kept a notebook writing down all of his observations.”
“One element that particularly fascinated him was the walking styles of people, perhaps a reflection of his own difficulties in relearning how to use his legs. He would watch people walking in every part of the city. He paid attention to the heaviness of the step. There was the emphatic walk of those who were persistent and full of resolve, the light step of those who seemed more indecisive, the loping, fluid walk of those who seemed rather lazy, the meandering walk of the people lost in thought. He observed closely the extra swaying of the hips or the strut that seemed to elevate the head, indicating high levels of confidence in a purse, there was the walk that people put on to cover up some weakness or insecurity, the exaggerated masculine stride, the nonchalant shuffle of the rebellious teenager.”
“He took note of the sudden changes in people’s walk as they became excited or nervous. All of this supplied him with endless information about people’s moods and self-confidence in his office. He placed his desk at the far end of the room making patients walk towards him. He would notice changes in the walk from before to after the session. He would scrutinize their way of sitting down, the level of tension in their hands as they grasped the arms of the chair, the degree to which they would face him as they talked, and in a matter of a few seconds without words being exchanged. He had a profound read on their insecurities and rigidity as mapped clearly in their body language.” (1)
Again, this story is from a book, The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Green, and there is in this little story, whole worlds of depth in my estimation.
Let me share with you one specific practical way that you can apply this idea of observing a second language. And it’s an application that you can utilize multiple times today because there is a question that you ask and I ask and you are asked and I am asked. It is a question that brings forth in us what I might think of as the most common lie of our lives. It’s a question that when I’m asked it, I feel somehow uncomfortable, even though I’ve been asked it literally thousands of times and so have you. The question so small as to almost mean nothing and yet so possibly rich as to mean everything is how are you? That’s it. How are you? And especially in my experience in the United States, that question is asked without intention. How are you? It’s supposed to be answered with fine. Good, great. Just move on. We’re moving on.
But when I’m asked the question, how are you? I always, even after more than 20 years of being in the US, I still feel I should answer the question. I think about the question. I think about how I’m doing, and as I try to answer the question, I realize again and again and again that people aren’t really asking me, and so then I’ve just become that guy.
But we can do better than this because here’s what I’ve learned over these many years, these 20 years of playing with that question of paying, of really observing the way people answer it, not entirely different than the way that Erickson studied the walking patterns of his patients and of people in general. There’s a lot to learn if we really observe. That is totally true in the question, how are you.
Even as people answer it in a surface way or at least intend to, they give a lot away if you’re paying attention, and I really try to, how are you? I’m watching for the tone of the way they answer. I’m watching for the body language underneath it, the look of the eye, the tilt of the head. I’m looking especially for how the word does not meet the reality, to how the word may be contradicted by the tone may be contradicted by the body language. Over time, I have added one word to the question and have found this word to be extremely valuable, to simply ask, how are you really?
That really takes us a full level down. It immediately shifts us from this surface world which is polite and safe and non-essential to a place where you might have a real conversation, somebody notices that you are really interested in them. And sometimes just from that question alone, people have revealed amazing things, really surprising levels of vulnerability because in some ways all of us are waiting all of the time for someone to be interested in us, for someone to really see us, to really hear us, to know that we really matter, and that one word shift from how are you to how are you really can do the trick.
But let me offer you one more insight I’ve learned more recently. The principle here is established so deeply in my experience, I consider it a fact, almost a natural law of human relations, that everybody is operating at many, many layers and all of the time there’s a surface layer, perhaps the most conscious layer, there’s a layer underneath that is slightly less conscious and slightly more important, and it goes on. We could consider it maybe there’s 10 layers, maybe there’s 20, perhaps there’s a hundred. I don’t know the number of layers, but I know there are layers, and the further you go down, like the metaphor of the iceberg, the harder it is to see what’s going on, but the more important it is. And we ignore those secrets, those subconscious realities to our own detriment at our own risk, a sort of titanic risk where we can pretend that it’s not there, but we’ll still crash our lives and relationships against those deeper, albeit invisible realities deep below the surface.
So with that as a principle, here is one other way to ask the question. How are you? You can ask it this way. How are you at the surface? How are you in the middle? How are you deep down? I use those questions to evaluate myself how I’m doing? How am I at the surface? How am I in the middle? How am I deep down? For example, just this week when I was reflecting on it myself, I found that at the surface I felt a bit frantic. In the middle, I felt a bit anxious, but deep down I felt quite centered and full of mission.
In some senses, that doesn’t surprise me, and yet my lived experience at that moment was mostly at the surface. That’s what I was conscious of, and I found it reassuring to find that deeper down, I felt calmer and centered and more direction, but sometimes it works exactly the opposite way round.
I asked a complete stranger this week, “How are you at the surface?”
“Oh, you know, fine.” But the way that she said it, that is not what she meant.
I said, “How are you in the middle?”
She said, “Oh.”
I said, “How are you? Deep down?”
She said, “Oh, that, that is just terrible.” She went on to explain, within the first one to two minutes of us ever meeting each other, the great dilemma of her life right now, literally the unexpected situation, she finds herself in that she can’t seem to figure out what to do. About two minutes of a conversation, and we were at the very heart of the very real issue that she was really trying to resolve in her life. If I’d asked her, how are you in the usual sense, I think you could have gone six months or more without getting anywhere close to the real issue.
So here’s my invitation to you today. The very next time you ask the question, “how are you?” really observe, pay attention. See what you can learn just from the way that somebody answers that question. If you’re ready to go a little further, just start with the question, “How are you really?” And immediately move to level two or three of the conversation, and if you are ready to move to a more bilingual way of communicating with others, to be able to go beyond the words to the language underneath, start asking the question, “How are you at the surface? How are you in the middle? How are you deep down?”
This is just one actionable piece of advice for how to be able to take advantage of a much deeper principle about how to communicate at these different deeper levels. And just to be clear, the problem with dealing with the surface is you’re dealing with misinformation. You’re dealing with things that are not how they really are. You are acting out, with perhaps good intention, behaviors that are not relevant, not appropriate, given what is really going on. All said more simply, you will behave wrongly. You will get it wrong even while your intent is to get it right. So take this little invitation, be prepared to be just a little bit awkward and watch, really watch what happens.
Thank you. Really thank you for listening.
What is one idea you heard today that caught your attention? Why did it matter to you? And who is one person you can share this insight with within the next 24 to 48 hours?
The principle we’ve covered here is that there are many, many layers to the masks that people wear, and if you act upon the surface mask, then you’re going to end up getting things wrong, but if you observe, you’ll find that people cannot even hide the real self. It will show up in their body language. It will show up in their tone of voice. It will show up if you show up.
If you found value in this episode, I want to hear about it. I read your responses, so go to Apple Podcasts and write a review, and as a thank you, the first five people that do that from this episode will receive access to the Essentialism Academy. Just go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo to find out more details
As we’re going into the new year, remember, get Effortless out and read it. Get Essentialism out and read it. As we go into the new year, you can design a life that is around what is truly essential for you and others, but to make that as effortless as possible to put into action. I’ll see you next time.
(1) Greene, R. (2019). The Laws of Human Nature. Penguin USA.