I’ve been playing chess on and off since middle school. The ancient Indian game of kings and queens has taught me a lot of lessons, but the most useful off the board has been the ability to predict how people will behave.

When I was first getting serious about chess, I found that one of the most useful exercises I could do to improve my game was replaying old grandmasters’ games. The key was that before every move I would think to myself, “What would I do in this situation? Why?” Then, I would see what the grandmaster would do and if it didn’t match up, I’d try and figure out why they made those moves.

The act of comparing my expected result with the actual result helped me refine my sense of how these players thought. When playing against people in real life, I would extend this exercise to notice how their body language was associated with their moves on the board. Were they sitting forward or back? One could be a sign of aggression and the other of hesitation. These simple observations helped me make crude models of where that person was and how they are likely to react to the way that I play.

Using this framework outside of the chess world was fun but not particularly effective. On a chess board the moves are limited to the rules that chess pieces must follow. In conversation there are infinite inputs to consider. Associating the fact that someone is bouncing their leg with nervousness is sometimes true, but only sometimes. They could just be fidgety people.

It wasn’t until I learned the concept of “norming” that I was able to really predict people’s behavior. Norming is a technique that interrogators use before questioning people. They start their interactions by asking them simple questions and playing close attention to how they react. They ask them questions that are going to result a true answer (e.g., “Describe what you’re wearing.”) and notice how their tone, facial expression and body language react. They do the same with questions they know will produce a false answer. Over time, they are able to build a model of how the person will react to a given stimuli and investigate responses that deviate from that.

This is one of my favorite ways to not only be more attentive to what people say and how they say it, but also probe deeper when I think there may be more to the story.


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