top of page

Understanding Behavior: The How & Why People Do What They Do

Understanding Behavior: The How & Why People Do What They Do
Understanding Behavior: The How & Why People Do What They Do

We make judgments about people as soon as we meet them. During our regular interactions, we interpret signals and body language. Watching someone’s body language, feeling their vibe, noticing their speech patterns, tone, and pacing, and listening to the types of questions they ask can all inform your ability to “read” another. These assumptions and interpretations help us communicate and relate to others and, when processed accurately, can help us feel confident and experience successful interactions.

If you are like most of my clients, your goal is to have successful interactions as much as possible, both at work and at home. You want to feel satisfied, trusted, and able to trust (as opposed to knowing you cannot trust the other person) and have a sense that the connection is a mutually valuable use of time and energy (vs. a waste of time and energy). And like many clients, you may be spending a significant amount of time and mindshare misinterpreting the behavior of others with an overemphasis on their intangible motives and intentions. Humans tend to have this focus on the "intangible" whenever the “tangible,” or what the people say and do, isn’t what we hoped for.

In the spirit of “deep work fast,” my signature approach to coaching, the goal is to educate and shift your focus to what will help you achieve your goal of high-value, successful interactions at home and at work. In this case, it would benefit you to focus on the behaviors of others and to stop wasting time and brain power trying to guess their motives and next move.

Let’s start with a few foundational ideas:

  • You cannot know the true intentions, motivations, and desires of others; you can only observe their behavior (what they say and do and HOW they do it).

  • Any attempt to interpret someone's motives (the WHY they do and say things) is usually a projection of your fear, needs, and/or wants.

  • Knowing how to observe and interpret behavior is a skill everyone can master.

Behavior 101

Behavior, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is how an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. This is why it is easier to focus on as a leader, partner, or parent because behavior is experienced and has context. At a basic level, behavior is:

Observable You can see and hear it! You can witness what each person, including yourself, is doing in each situation. And when they do not say or do something, that is still behavior. This is not the WHY; it is the HOW they are choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to live out interactions and actions.

Situational Because behaviors are surface responses and actions, they are a choice at some level and are based on the context of the current situation. That said, some people walk through life on autopilot, often defaulting to specific patterns until they are given feedback (or experience failure) that highlights the behavior is no longer working.

Flexible Contrary to what you might experience of yourself and others, we all have various behaviors to choose from at any given moment. Because we are habitual animals that tend to get comfortable, individuals have “go-to” behaviors, called the “comfort zone.” However, we are not locked in or stuck with ONLY those behaviors. If you are healthy, both mentally and emotionally, you can take an intentional approach to how you act and react, choosing to behave appropriately and at your best based on the situation, not by default.

Dynamic As you age, grow, and experience evolving situations, devices, and problems repeatedly (like most of us do at work and in our homes), you learn and adapt without thinking about it too much. A healthy 61-year-old will learn to use the new functions on the iPhone each time the iOS updates out of necessity. We, as animals, adjust our approach, either in big or small ways, based on stimuli, necessity, and crisis. And yes, some very stubborn people still refuse to shift their approach, and this isn’t healthy.

Driven by Perception Perceptions are how we interpret any given situation. We experience the event and then make meaning of it to maintain safety and control based on the impulses in our body and the feelings they bring up. This is how a healthy ego identity works, but it doesn't always mean our interpretation is accurate. Sometimes, our perception is off, missing information, or influenced by being triggered by recent or long-past trauma. As a result, we may choose unproductive behavioral responses that create confusion or drama for others.

What About Personality?

Personality includes both inherent traits and learned cognitive and behavioral patterns that shape individuals’ thoughts and actions. Character is a component of personality that is influenced by experiences and continues to evolve. Our personality type is the primary “why” behind most people’s behavior, working to maintain identity (ego). Often, it is highly influenced by subconscious beliefs about self, others, survival, and the ultimate desire to have our needs met and be accepted by others. Learning more about personality types can also be helpful if you are in a leadership position or want a more advanced understanding of motivation and the hard wiring that drives habitual patterns.

In many situations, it is difficult to interpret a person's real intentions, feelings, and motivations behind their behavior. We often make assumptions based on our prior experiences, but these choices may lead us astray as well. The key is being able to make accurate and prompt interpretations of one's body language, tone, and other signals, which can help improve our communication instincts for success and less drama, confusion, and conflict.

If you are looking for ways to better read, communicate, and understand others more effectively, join me for Deep Work Fast, our LIVE event on Tuesday at 3:00pm PT on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. You are also encouraged to sign up for our exclusive resources and tools on either AVVI or Aria Consulting.


bottom of page