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Understanding People...
Know who you are, where you are, and what is going on around you.

By: David K. Every
(C) 1997 - All Rights Reserved

This article came from my book (student guide) on Martial Arts. It is related to self-defense, however, like "The Book of 5 Rings", or "The Art of War", the concepts can be applied in a more broader sense to your life. The best Martial Artist is the one that can avoid harming others, as well as defending himself. The best way to do that is to avoid confrontation. Learning about people and how to deal with them will not only help the Martial Artist in class, but through out his life. Some of the most important lessons learned in Martial Arts are how to interact with others.

People (Emotional)

People are emotional creatures, even the ones that don't seem like it. Many women complain that men are "cold" and unemotional, this is a mistake. Men feel different emotions and show emotions differently than women do, and when that is not understood someone is considered lacking. Our status in society (pecking order), our World Model (the way we perceive the world around us), our motives, and our ego and self-esteem are all going to affect the way in which we interact with others. If we can understand these, we can avoid unnecessary conflicts with others.

People don't like to know, what they don't want to know.
They used to kill the messenger that bore bad news.
Take the hint.


Alphas & Betas

This is not about grocery stores, this is about people. Psychologists understand that there are two types of people (as a gross over-simplification), or two primary modes of operation for humans. Alphas (a) are the dominants and leaders. Betas (b) are the submissives and the followers.These are roles, and as roles they may change. You may accept your role or deny it. However we are creatures of habit, and are highly likely to fall back into the "role" we are most comfortable (familiar) with. Know that even if you choose not to play the role, that does not mean that others are not still playing theirs, and they may be happy with it -- and most people don't like change (like when you change your role).

This alpha-beta ranking is the pecking order of our society, it is the hierarchy we live by. Your role will probably change based on the context -- at work you may be a subordinate, and have to be the beta; or you might offend or scare your boss, and get fired. At home you might be the head of the household and be the alpha; you get the final say. Or things might be the opposite. Alpha and beta are not good or bad, they just exist. It takes much more responsibility and energy to be the alpha, that is why most people are happy being the beta. Though you may be the beta to those above you, you can still be the alpha to those below you.

Problems don't usually arise when everyone knows their roles, this is the smoothly oiled machine that is our society or family. Problems arise when people want to change the order/roles, or when people feel threatened about their position/status. Think about it, we seldom get mad at our children until they "disobey" us or try to tell us what to do, we fight at home when our spouse won't let us get the last word or they expect us to make all the decisions. At work we have problems when we feel we could do a better job than "so-and-so", or when we aren't getting the recognition that we (or our position) deserve. Our position is not being recognized, therefore, it is being threatened. This makes us nervous. It is this change or challenge that causes the friction, realize that before you attempt to make a change. Since few people want to move down in rank, watch your actions when moving up, though many also get annoyed when you go the other way (they are often happy right where they are). Realize what you do, and how people above or below you are going to feel.

We, as a species, are also scared of the unknown. We have learned that the hard way. We misjudge and often get hurt, so we hate to have to make judgements. This makes us much more cautious. When someone invades our territory, joins our job, comes in our local hang-out, etc., we get nervous. First we must establish the pecking order. As soon as the order is re-established, we quickly become comfortable again.

Watch the fake. There are many people that pretend to be comfortable being the beta, this lets you feel comfortable being the alpha. As soon as your guard goes down, you get hit. If the hit caught you hard and unaware, it proves that you were not smart enough to retain your "alpha" status. This is both a literal example, with a sucker punch by some challenger in a bar, or the example is figurative, with a guy at work pretending to work under you and then suddenly going over your head or stabbing you in the back.

Learning how to read this pecking order, and knowing how to project the proper signals can help you throughout your life. You should learn how to read all the signals for who's who, and what's what.

World Model

It is better to live by another mans rules,
than to die by them.

Everyone has their own world model, their beliefs in what is right or wrong, good or evil. It is dangerous to assume that another person world model is the same as yours. If you do this, you will be perpetually dumbfounded at the injustices and craziness of the world (and the lack proper behavior from other people).

Whenever you are on someone elses turf, you had better learn their rules. This is done best by observing, preferably quietly. Everyone lives within their own world model, causing many problems when two different world models collide. When you are in a confrontation, the true skill is in figuring out what that other person's world model is, and what you are doing wrong (which has started or is perpetuating the confrontation). If the confrontation turns into a fight, it is usually due to your lack of insight and understanding. Your world models are going to affect your communications too, so be careful to avoid problems with misunderstandings and miscommunications.

The rules change based on the world model of an "opponent" -- you need to know what rules (or lack of rules) there are.

There some people that are accustomed to "friendly fights", these are just initiation rites and putting you right into the pecking order from the start. His rules are; he punches you (insults you), you reutrn the favor -- and you each figure out your pecking order (one of you is declared the alpha), then you lick your wounds, joke about the confrontation, and share a beer. If you break the rules (i.e. kick the living crap out of him verbally or physically, or break the rules in the confrontation) you will have to be taken down a peg or three -- usually with the help of the others nearby, who understand the rules (and feel you must be punished for breaking them). On the other hand, if you play by "friendly" rules where someone is deadly serious, you will likely be surprised by the lack of ethics, or the level of beating you will receive. All this can be applied metaphorically or literally (physically).

A "friendly fight" is an oxymoron to me. But when you are playing in someone elses sandbox (with his world model) you play by his rules, or leave.

Gestures, jokes and humor all change by region, what was funny at home may be an insult elsewhere. Speech and meaning also change, especially with slang terms. Be aware of the way people are reacting around you, if they are reacting wrong explain what you meant. If you aren't communicating well, then shut up until you learn how to communicate "right". Learning this could save your hide.

The thumbs up "Fonzie gesture", the "O.K." hand gesture, and the "#1" index finger in the air, are all vulgar insults in other regions. Spitting or the wrong look can cause an instant fight. It is not the other persons fault that you don't know how to communicate. When in Rome...

To help you read someones World Model, you must be able to read their body language, this includes their verbal and non-verbal communications. These signals will help you estimate their world model and may save you from some bad situations. [See communications]

Right and Wrong

Right and Wrong is absolute,
I am always right,
and if you disagree you are absolutely wrong.

One of the worst things we do to children today is convince them that there is an absolute right and wrong or good and evil. It isn't wrong for people to try to apply their rules to themselves (and have rules to live by) -- but when their "wrong" clashes with someone elses world view (of what is right or wrong), there can be serious confrontations. If you think only your world-view is valid, then there will be a war of the worlds (1).

(1) This of course has to be balanced with standing up for what you beleive in, and your "principles". But if you are the one challenging their world model, you will be the person that is starting the conflict. Some things are worth fighting for, but realize that you are starting it (in the other persons mind).

Right and wrong are personal opinions, and are based on our individual world models. I feel it is wrong to infringe on anyone elses rights. Many sociopaths feel it is perfectly alright to infringe on anyones rights, but wrong to infringe on theirs. To many religious groups or socialists, it is alright (or necessary) to infringe on others rights -- if it is in the best interests of the others or of society in general. To others this is absolutely wrong, and the the individuals rights are saccrosinct. Who is right, and who is wrong? What is good and what is evil? This is all based on the individual. Because it is all based on the individual (and individual opinion), seldom do individuals do things that are wrong in their own minds. But if others play in their world, and break the "rules", then there will be issues. Wars, murders and fights are all started over differences of world view.

Being extreme (fanatical) towards absolute right and wrong doesn't change the fact that it is JUST an opinion. Most religions even agree that sins are subjective (circumstance oriented) and not objective (absolute). Religions have created (or had given to them) rights and wrongs (moral laws), we as a society have created rights and wrongs (judicial laws), but these laws are just a majority consensus (possibly) of what society says is right and wrong. Any individual that does not believe in the majority consensus will believe he is right in what he is doing, eventhough morally, ethically or legally he is wrong. So sociopaths, revolutionaries, and others you disagree with, probably do not think what they are doing is wrong, often reasoning with them is a waste of time. You must resolve yourself to either be prepared to be the judge, jury and "punisher" -- or you must realize where most confrontations are going.


If you are forced to deal with someone, politically, legally or physically, and you want to understand what is going on, it will help to figure out why he thinks he is right (and you are wrong). If you can not understand HIS right and wrong, then you will not understand him or his actions. If you can not explain your right and wrong to him, he will not understand you (or your actions). So his world model is more important (to him) -- and you should get good at realizing that your world model is irrelevant when it comes to avoiding conflicts, or understanding the rules in one.

Since a world model is the way a person(s) sees the world, this is affected by personality types and his motives. If you understand what is motivating the person, you understand more about that person (and his actions). If the person is an egomaniac, and you are making him look bad, you are on shaky ground. Some people are control freaks, they need to be in control of every situation; if take too much control from them, they will fight you for it. There are so many other types of people and motives, there could be a book about just this topic, but the whole point is; learn to find out what an individual wants, and what motivates him. Then decide wether it is worth fighting for, or what the real conflict is about. If it is not worth fighting for, then give in.


Learn to read your environment, this is critical. You don't belch loudly in a fine restaurant, and you don't act too polite in a sleazy diner. Situations must be evaluated based on the environment. If you are in a boxing match you have different rules of conduct, than when you are in a bar fight. What is right and what is smart, are often two completely different things. Learn to read the environment you are in, and realize that this immediate environment changes many things. If you get in an argument with someone in private, it is quite different then when it is in public, especially if it is in front of people they want to impress.

You should know how to communicate with others, both in reading them and being able to send signals. However the environment affects the signals. If you ignore the environment, you may become part of it. Your environment you are in had better define your actions -- if you don't know how to act in an environment, you had better learn quickly or get out.

Know Yourself!

Remember to watch yourself! If you are getting carried away because of your own wants (desires), then observe yourself and learn. If you overreact, learn why. Your motives are going to make as much of a difference as the other persons. You can diffuse a situation, especially if you are not running on auto-pilot and escallating it. If you get into a confrontation, figure out why. Are you going to fight over ego, anger, self-righteousness, nastiness, turf, attitude, etc.? Understanding is the first step towards defusing a situation.

It is very rare that the winner walks away unscathed. Since confrontation "hurts" so much, for both parties involved in a fight (physical or metaphorical), it is rare to find someone who actually enjoys fighting. Most people talk big, and will fight to defend their honor, their pecking order, their egos, etc., -- but they don't really want to fight. Some people lash out because of anger, or past wrongs. If you can give them a way out (and make it obvious), most will take it. If it gets to the point of a fight then there is a motive somewhere, figuring it out will save you problems (if not in the present, then in the future).

Created: 12/01/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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