The Critical 7 Rules To Understand People

My headline might sound overreaching. Clearly a rule can’t define something as complex as human behavior. But despite this, I’ve found most people tend to make the same mistakes. These mistakes are frequent enough that they create conflicts later. Remembering these seven rules will help you avoid these mistakes.

People Skills is About Being Nice, Friendly and Interesting, Duh!

Most the books I’ve read on dealing with people either make two claims:

  • Incredibly obvious stuff that most sensible people understand; even if they haven’t always mastered it. Things like be nice, be considerate, etc.
  • Bizarre and complex theories that may explain some behavior, but is difficult to generalize.

Between these two I’ve found there seems to be a gap of information that is can be applied generally, but isn’t always obvious. These frequent mistakes tend to cause most people conflicts, social errors and emotional upsets.

The Seven

Here are the seven rules I’m talking about:

Rule One: Never blame malice for what can easily be explained by conceit.

People don’t care about you. This isn’t because people are mean or hurtful, but simply because they are mostly focused on themselves. Consider this hypothetical pie-chart showing the variety of thoughts a typical person has:

Thought Chart

In this example, 60% of thoughts are self-directed. My goals. My problems. My feelings. Another 30% are directed towards relationships, but how they affect me. What does Julie think of me? How will boss evaluate my performance in the next review? Do my friends like me or see me as irritating?

Only 10% in this model is time spent in empathy. Empathy is the rare event where one person actually feels the emotions, problems and perspective of another person. Instead of asking what Julie thinks of me, I ask what is Julie thinking.

Within that 10%, most people then divide attention between hundreds of other people they know. As a result, you would occupy a fraction of a percentage in most peoples minds, and only a couple percentage points in a deeply bonded relationship. Even if you are in another persons thoughts, it is how your relationship affects them, not you.

What does this mean?

  • Embarrassment doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since others are only focusing a small portion of there thoughts onto judging you, your self-judgement is overwhelmingly larger.
  • People who appear to be mean or hurtful don’t usually do it intentionally. There are exceptions to this, but generally the hurt you feel is a side-effect, not the principle cause.
  • Relationships are your job to maintain. Don’t wait to be invited to parties or for people to approach you.

Rule Two: Few Social Behaviors are Explicit

Basically this rule means that most the intentions behind our actions are hidden. If a person is feeling depressed or angry, usually the resulting behaviors distort their true feelings. If I feel you snubbed me, I might hold my tongue but ignore you later.

The old joke is that women use words like, “fine,” and, “go ahead,” when they really feel the opposite. But I’ve noticed men do this too in polite situations, although often not in the same way.

The application of this rule is that you need to focus on empathy, not just hearing a person. Demonstrate trust, build rapport and learn to probe a bit. By focusing on empathy you can usually break away these subversions and get to the heart of the issue faster.

The other application of this rule is that most the time you feel something, nobody else knows about it. So don’t get angry when people aren’t responding to you. If you deceive your thoughts with your actions, don’t get angry when you fool people.

Rule Three: Behavior is Largely Dictated by Selfish Altruism

To say everyone is completely selfish is a gross exaggeration. That ignores all the acts of kindness, sacrifice and love that make the world work. But I would argue that most (not all, but most) behavior does work from the principles of selfish altruism.

Selfish altruism is basically win/win. It is where helping you directly or indirectly helps me. There are a couple main categories where this applies:

  1. Transactions – If I purchase a car, both myself and the dealer benefit. I get a vehicle, which I want. The dealer gets money to improve his lifestyle. This is the predominant form of selfish altruism between people who don’t have emotional bonds.
  2. Familial – Blood is thicker than water. We are designed to protect people who share our genes. This can sometimes shift towards extremely close friends and loved ones.
  3. Status – Helping someone is a sign of power. Many species of primates will offer assistance as a sign of dominance. People act similarly, offering aid to boost their self-esteem and reputation.
  4. Implied Reciprocity – Many relationships are based on the idea that if I help you, one day you will help me as well.

Occasionally behavior falls outside this group. Nameless heroes dying for causes that don’t help their bloodline. Volunteers devoting their time towards humanitarian missions. But these are the minority, whereas most actions can be explained by some form of selfish altruism.

How do you apply this rule? You understand the motives of people and appeal to them as if they were selfish. Find ways to help people within these four categories. Don’t expect people to offer aid outside of selfish altruism, it isn’t impossible, but it isn’t likely.

Rule Four: People Have Poor Memories

Ever been told someone’s name at a party and then forgot it later? Another rule of human behavior is that people have trouble remembering things. Especially information (as you’ll recall in rule one) that doesn’t apply to themselves. People are more likely to remember your similarities than your differences (unless they were emotionally incensed by them).

Recently I even broke this rule. I made arrangements to talk to a person I hadn’t met before on the phone. Even with my normally foolproof system of calendars and to-do lists, a few spontaneous schedule changes caused me to miss the call. I quickly apologized and made a new arrangement.

But the fact is most people don’t have organized GTD systems. People are forgetful by nature, so once again, don’t assume malice or disinterest if something is forgotten. The other side of this rule is that you can demonstrate reliability by having a good memory or system (if it doesn’t fail you).

Rule Five: Everyone is Emotional

Perhaps this is an exaggeration. But the core of the message is that people tend to have stronger feelings about something than they let on. People who regularly have outbursts of anger, depression or flamboyant enthusiasm are generally frowned upon in most cultures. This especially applies to men (for women trying to figure us out).

The application of this rule is to not assume everything is fine just because someone isn’t having a nervous breakdown. We all have our individual problems, angst and upsets that are normally contained. You don’t need to call people out on their private deception, but being sensitive to those underlying currents gives you an advantage in trying to help.

The alternate application of this rule is similar to rule two. People generally assume everything is fine unless you just had a blowup.

Rule Six: People are Lonely

This is another broad generalization. But it is amazing how many people who seem to have it all, suffer from bouts of loneliness. As social animals, I believe people are especially sensitive to any threats to becoming ostracized. In Neanderthal times, exile meant death, so loneliness and the desire to be with other people is a strong one.

The application of this rule is that loneliness is fairly common, so in that sense, you really aren’t alone. I used to be bothered when I felt alone or an outsider in a social group. Although I’m still human, I’ve found recognizing this feeling to be fairly common as a way to minimize it.

Rule Seven: Did I Mention People Are Self-Absorbed?

This may sound like a reiteration of rule one, but I believe the applications extend beyond relationships and your emotional state. The fact that people tend to be too concerned about themselves to give you much attention, that people tend to be lonelier, more emotional and feel differently than they let on applies to how you view the world.

If anything this perspective should make you more proactive and independent. Once I started really learning these rules, it made far more sense that I needed to take charge. By placing your individual happiness in the hands of another person (or people), you ignore all these rules and do so at your own peril.

I like to take an optimistic, but realistic view of people. People who are generally try their best, but make mistakes and suffer from unintended self-absorption. In other words, they are basically like you.

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  • Adrianne

    I have read this post a few times because it is so basic and helpful to be reminded that what people do, say, and or not, is MOSTLY if not all about them.

  • amy

    this was very intresting, im writing a speech on understanding people and i think it would be more helpful if you included some real stories of the concepts in action

  • Travis

    Haha, Amy’s a pretty good example.

  • Peta

    Thanks so much for your great article, Scott.

    Can you recommend any literature that expands on these ideas?

  • Buffy

    It’s so true, sometimes we alienate our selves from others because we think we are different then them; but get right down to it, we are all the same. We all suffer in the same sort of ways and we also seek love and happiness to dominate our lives.
    Thanks for the perfect reminders!

  • bari

    I can simply say its great.

  • Franis

    “Hesitate to attribute to malice what can be explained as thoughtlessness.” is the one sort of like yours. I like the addition of conceit to that.
    I like Laura Huxley’s advice: “You are not the target” Which is pretty much an admonition to “get over yourself.”

    The strange kicker, (if someone follows your advice,) is it develops a tacit agreement with others that you’re going to be the one with the responsibility to keep up both ends of the relationship. I know, I’ve been doing these things you recommend because I thought they were a Good Idea too – (for a few decades now.) Somehow other people imagine I’m always going to be the one to initiate contact with them and they don’t need to indicate to me that they’d like to make contact with me. Sort of irritating after awhile, it made me feel burned out eventually.

  • Andriy Guravskyy

    I completely disagree with you.You need to have a prespective in life and understanding and knowledge of others and their things so it would be easyer to get to where u want to go. As I read you shit, you completly deny of any of this, which is why I don’t like you

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  • AH

    Your observation [that people focus on themselves] is similar to what Dale Carnegie suggested in many of his books……

  • Connie Johson

    I do at times feel like no one gets me and that I don’t get them. I also feel like people are selfish and self centered. For instance, my sister calls me and wants to talk at me, she doesn’t give a crap what I have to say. So I just let her go on and on and I respond with, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. And when I do finally talk, I am anxious and I hurry to get everything I need to say out as fast as I can which usually results in me not saying things how I wanted to say them. I do this because she is known for interrupting people as well. I don’t understand people the older I get. I use to be a socialite and understood people, but things have changed. Thanks for the article. I am going to bookmark it and read it again when I am feeling misunderstood.

  • rosie

    its so true and very useful ,

  • IMMA


  • http://no naresh

    this is good.

  • simran

    I agree with Franis…why is it one person who has to make sure the relationship is going good….you do million things for one person right but incase you do one thing wrong…you are expected to correct it….you do get tired of it eventually….

  • Matt

    This article is very accurate about people in general. However I fail to see why we should follow the advice and stop thinking about ourselves. What I have learned from the analysis is that people are self absorbed. Going out of ones way to get into the life of someone else will leave your life empty. Ideally everyone would care about everyone else, and with over a billion people interested in your survival life would be awesome right. Obviously some people on the planet do have followers. I am thinking celebrities that are hounded by photographers and stalkers alike. I just love flowery philosophies that blossom from scientific research. We need to learn that facts discovered, like all human beings spend ninety percent of their time thinking about themselves, is reality. That ten percent devoted to others belongs to the people that help you survive on a regular basis. Partly so you know who you should repay with aid later. Leaving all of the philosophy aside, the science tells us that the only one that matters to a typical human is that human and the people they owe or can benefit from. Armed with this knowledge don’t expect others to be helpful or even grateful if you help them.

  • Pete Bannon

    Nice one bru, all of it should be considered common sense, but i always forget it… i may just bookmark this and read it at least once a week.

    Great work bru,

    I will be frequenting here often

  • abcd

    I feel like the other person in the blog. I feel burnt out. I try to be a hero all the time, try to keep up relationships, try to help people. When they dont reciprocate, I feel left out. I ask for little things which are very minor to them. I try to explain them, but it does not get through. They get upset, I end up cleaning up the mess. I stopped explaining now couple of years ago. Most of the times, whenever I feel left out, I just go out for a long walk and shout in the silence. I dont return till I feel that I have no energy left in me to expect anything from anybody.

  • Lou

    Yeah, so basically, empathy is the key to problem-solving in relationships, and since no one has any for you, you’d better have it for them. 😛 As bleak as that sounds, it’s true. I go on a date and it’s such a turn-off when the person just starts rattling off about themselves, unless they have something super-interesting to say. What’s a turn-ON is when she is listening intently, paying close attention. Now my thing is I simply have no desire to talk much if at all about myself if the other person isn’t asking about me. But on the other hand, I don’t know how to pay attention to people deeply unless they are paying attention to me. I need to work on that… empathy. I know it can be increased since I’ve met people who could give me SO much empathy effortlessly. But at the same time, this post helps me realize that I don’t *need* to increase my empathy if I don’t want to, that I could simply use the awareness that no one else is working out of empathy for me because they’re like me. But I *want* to increase empathy because it just feels shitty when others have none for me.

  • Anni

    This post reminded me why grace is so amazing–giving to others after realizing it could never be repaid. Grace goes beyond understanding people and becomes loving people. I believe this is what Christ does for us (Christianity).

    For me, on the other hand, I realized I fit the selfish altruism behaviors!

    Thanks for this enlightening and convicting post.

  • Richie Robertson

    “Then may I say this… do what you love and share it with others.”
    so Take this as the ONLY way that I have to compliment your work. This is “To Live it” :)

    Well done to you Scott.

    end official post… here.

    Then may I say this… do what you love and share it with others.
    Well done to you Scott. I want to put you as my home page, this information is not worthy of ignorant musing and deserves a place in my life.
    I might not keep it there after a while as I like to start out usually on about:blank and this is the way I have had it for most of my computing history, so Take this as the ONLY way that I have to compliment your work. and the other way,
    This is “To Live it” :)

    end of official official (like really that’s all for now folk’s) end, or is it now just the new beginning? 😉

  • Richie Robertson

    I have put your web page as my home page.

    integrity is like soothing water, it nourishes life, you just have got to have it because it is an esential part of our constitution.

    -Tastes best at it’s most simplest form, when it is pure-
    and is precious to human survival.

    matter of fact, I’m a little thirsty right about now… 😛

  • Jessticles

    Wonderful blog & site. Smart rules about understanding people & thanks for putting it so simply. Just what I needed today (there I go, thinking about myself again) 😉

  • hanch

    you say it’s important to initiate contact with people, to keep both ends of the relationship going. but if you’re always the one starting the conversation, is it worth it?

  • Mary R.

    This was a great article. I am an older lady trying to navigate socially in today’s world, where many things have changed from when I was younger. this article was very helpful. I think you are right about everything here.

  • Moe

    I just wanted to say Thank You, what you’ve stated is right on point and helped me realize I shouldn’t car about what people think of me and that it’s dangerous to put my happiness in another persons hand.

  • MJMallows

    An excellent posting, a wonderful philosophy and a very practical way to go about the process and business of relating to people!

    I believe that everything we do is motivated either by Love or Fear; which doesn’t mean that we have to like, put up with, suffer or accept what other people say or do; we can refuse, decline, move on, say “no!”
    And we can do so CRAFTILY: with Consideration (for self and others); Responsiveness (rather than being reactive) Assertiveness (as opposed to aggression), Focus (as opposed to being all over the place), Thoughtfulness (a better option than irrational reactivity), Intuition (with sensory acuity) Love (’nuff said!), and the Yes mindset that stems from Intelligent Optimism.

    Putting ourselves ‘at the effect of ‘externals – be it other people, the weather, failure, disappointment, co-dependency or whatever – results in being the needy child in every relationship. Some people are frozen forever in emotional adolescence and turn every one else into their parents; if we haven’t forgiven our parents, we’ve never really left home!

    Forgiveness means giving up hoping for a better past; choosing not to forgive is like drinking poison hoping someone else will die.

    These seven ‘rules’ are all worth pondering in great depth, although I’ll think of them as signposts, simply pointing me in the direction and reminding me that I have choices and that I am choosing.

    C onsideration
    R esponsiveness
    A ssertiveness
    F ocus
    T houghtfulness
    I ntuition
    L ove
    Y es

    Go well

  • David

    Good insights. I’m currently working with high technical people, who pretend they don’t make emotional decisions. Being critical hurts the relationship and our ability to get important done. The question I’m asking myself is how can I quickly and accurate understand people, their needs, and their agendas, so that I can help them to succeed and the organization.

  • jyotsna

    Every person is different.I’ll better prefer Psychology to understand people.

  • Makenzie

    I think that you present several important factors of life in the above essay in a very stunning way. You’ve made me think about many things, and in some ways I wonder how I could miss such an obvious solution to many problems. Thanks for this essay — it’s really helpful in all fields of life.

  • Anonymous

    This puts a lot of conventional “be a friend to get a friend” advice right in the trashbin. And that’s fine by me, since it never worked to begin with. Even “listening to be heard” is total b.s.
    It’s come to my awareness that the “results/goal orientation” so prevalent in our culture is absolutely killing us. We demand accountability from everything and everyone, and any effort which fails to produce our “prize” we instantly write off as failing, or incompetence, or not worth pursuing. Process is irrelevant unless it yields our demanded results. We’ve forgotten the concept of just BEING WITH people. Instead, everyone has to be ‘beneficial’ or something worth chasing. Competion has become so cutthroat, average isn’t good enough, even though that’s where most of us live. We have to be “better”, “smarter”, ect, just to survive. And we carry this anxiety-laden demandingness into everything.

    I avoid people, for the most part. They don’t make sense. Reality seems be whatever the majority of people say it is, irregardless of which direction the rain is really falling. I’ve seen the possessive condition most people call love and want nothing of it. People treat each other with profound disrespect, and call it charity. And I know why the autism epidemic is exploding in this country: go to any department store, and you’ll see infants in strollers or shopping carts going hours & hours with no eye contact with anyone. Horrible.

  • Wade

    Very well put. I don’t see it as meaning we have to be a doormat or always reach out to the people that give no response. I think you’re just helping us see the reality so that we can work from there (and not get lost in myths about other people). I think in my own life, it’s not so much that I want to be understood as I want to be valued. Most the time I don’t care if people know how I feel or understand what I’m going through. More often, it’s enough to know people value time with me. I don’t care if they pat me on the back when I’m down, but if give a pat on the back, I want to know it was felt. I always want to know that what I have to offer has value to someone.

  • Derron Pocci

    This is a very analytical and insightful post on how people get along in society and I find it very helpful reminding myself these things. Thanks for broadening my opinion.

  • Nick

    Very nice post–thanks Scott

  • sofia

    I really liked this post. So simple facts but stil people tend to forget about them.
    I think many people seems to try to improve their social skills by focusing on themselves. But I think it makes much more sence to fokus on other people and try to understand them and their actions.

  • yasmeen


  • Vin Doobs

    Quite an eye-opener. Thanks.

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  • Manny Calavera

    Absolutely tremendous article, Scott. So much so, that I didn’t even noticed those two or three spellcheck fails.

    Kudos and thanks. Consider yourself bookmarked. :)

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  • Angel

    well,… this article is greatly appreciated. My question is where did the graph and/or percentage came from, is it based on a study or is it simply a hypothesis?

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    What an intelligent young man you are with such brilliant insights! Thank you Scott.
    p.s. Where do you think these 2 simple words would fall and what percentage would you give them? 3% of the empathy or relationship pie slice? To me, “Thank You” is the most under-utilized tool we have in our society for getting more in life.

  • Natasha

    This was a great post.

    I’ve been feeling so confused, sad, and angry recently. I feel like I try so hard to help out with my friends and families needs (even if these somehow help me in the long run). I think about how people are feeling all the time. It is like I feel their pain. My laziness or selfishness plays a part when I fail to act to help them. But I think this is also limited by the way society has given us rules. I find myself saying, “well you don’t need to do that” “they wouldn’t do that for you” etc. No matter what, I do express to them my empathy for what their going for, even if I don’t do some lavish gesture to try and help. I let them know that I understand and I’m interested. I care.

    I get angry when I can’t even get someone to help me out even when I spell it out for them. It’s usually something that isn’t even difficult. But they just don’t care. Not like I do. They aren’t thinking about me when I am not around. They aren’t considering my feelings or thinking about how to make my day better.

    This is the scariest part. why? what is love then?

  • Ghaith

    I want to thank you for this article ,very deep and simple at the same time , great way of viewing the world .. but still as you said at the first ,human kind to very complicated to be understood ,thank you again :)

  • Andrew


  • Truth

    This rule is true on average that if you want people to listen to you that you focus on them,but it’s not always the same results.Some will talk 90% and only give you 10% to to talk and others will talk 40% and give you 60% to talk,so it’s not always the same,BUT it does work.Listen to someone they will then listen to you on average.Respect someone and they will respect you on average,etc.

    Thank you :)

  • Tammi

    I think the author is not referring to enabling dependency (which is what causes burnout and is not a healthy relationship). I think the author is referring to relationships with mentally healthy people. I think if the author included the unhealthy relationships that can become a life sucking problem (alcoholics, narcissists, sociopaths) this would be a better article for those dealing with understanding that SOME people have NO empathy for others and we have to accept that we do not have to allow those people to take over our lives. Thank you though, for an interesting article regarding ‘normal’ people and relationships.

  • HouseGuest

    Hi Scott,
    I really like this post because it explains some key elements of human behaviour without being cynical or overly simplistic.

    I think the part about selfish altruism is really important – some people fail to take responsibility for the fact that when they are helping someone, they are also meeting some of their own needs (to feel important, look good to others, leave a legacy etc). Especially in cases where the help recipient has a sense of entitlement, or where they don’t actually need the help (but accept it when offered out of politeness/laziness) the recipient might not return the favour, which leaves the helper feeling indignant, cheated or used, and leaves the recipient with a bad reputation. Knowing about selfish altruism would help both parties realise why they ended up looking/feeling bad!

    Selfish altruism might also explain why some people are more introverted than others – people who frequently need help will want to form relationships and have lots of “credit in the favour bank”, so they can draw on them when needed, whilst people who are good at meeting their own needs will not see the sense in constantly having to help other people when they do not ask much in return, so they might be just as happy being alone.

    I’m going to bookmark this one I think!