Leaders are masters at this!

One quality all great leaders possess is their ability to “read between the lines” during conversations.  They are able to understand the subtext in people’s communication.

Our communication is frequently influenced by subtext.  In order to effectively communicate, it is crucial to learn how to use this information.

Let’s see an example to understand this clearly.

We must always remember to separate the overt from the covert – what we perceive and the reality.

Imagine that you are walking by a crowded street and suddenly find a man lying there in a pool of blood.  As your eyes make contact with a burly-looking stranger, he starts to make a run and turns around the corner.  Hey, “wait” you shout as you see a car speeding out from the lane and turning at high speed.

Why does this man run when he sees you?  Why is the car speeding out of the lane immediately after?

Because the man committed a crime and is running around the corner to jump into a car driven by his accomplice, who then speeds away to escape from the crime scene.

The scene above never said you saw the stranger committing the crime.  Also, there was no mention of you having seen this man jumping into the car and that it was his accomplice who helped him escape the crime scene.

You deduced it from the scene itself, the description, and the mood of the scene. Is “wait” a subtextual word? Or even “running”; or “speeding”?  There is nothing hidden in the words, other than “stop”, and “don’t run”, depending on the way it is delivered in the scene.

Imagine that the stranger was working as an assistant in the neighborhood pharmacy and had just run around the corner to get some first aid for the man who was lying there bleeding.  It might have been the man in the car who would have actually committed the crime.

The key to better communication and increased likeability is to use subtext to fill in the blanks of any incoming communication. You will quickly realize that practically everything a person says contains subtle undertones intended to subtly or overtly convey extra messages if you pay close attention.

Consider how people’s past experiences and histories may relate to the current situation. What feelings are involved here? Hint: at least one main emotion is always present. It will unavoidably affect their goals, perspectives, and motivations in a way that might cause their message to diverge from what they actually mean.

If you are aware of someone’s overall personality qualities, you may frequently make a decision by considering how they would prefer to act in the given circumstance. Someone is likely internally shouting “NO!” if they are exceedingly quiet and timid and reply to anything to the extent of “I agree… I suppose.” Basically, take into account the source and how a person’s experiences affect how they communicate.

Examine a person’s vocal tone to determine their sincerity. Are they serious, angry, or sarcastic? Does the message’s tone fit with it? Someone probably means no if they answer affirmatively but with sarcasm. Someone is probably not satisfied with the conclusion if they agree but act furious about it. If they answer honestly and with a “yes,” they are either conflicted or don’t care. There are countless ways to interpret vocal tones, but the majority do in fact imply that the words are not to be taken literally.

Watch how people react to you. You may tell how someone is feeling about what you say by seeing how patient, kind, and accommodating they attempt to be. This includes the amount of silence you hear and the level of curiosity they exhibit. Even if they agree with you, if someone waits for two beats to respond to a straightforward question, they may have had to consider their response and may be conveying negativity through subtext.

Observing how far people differ from their typical pattern of behavior is another factor to consider, which can call for more observant abilities. What does it indicate that your boss is somber and pessimistic if they are usually upbeat? It can make the statement “Things are going well” convey the complete opposite meaning. You can use the hints that subtext leaves to sharpen your communication skills. Signs are left all over the place.

Of course, the difficult thing is interpreting these facets of a person at the same time, as you could in a typical daily conversation.

This means that in reality, you have two tasks to complete:

  1. analysing the dialogue and selecting the appropriate response; and
  2. keeping an eye out for subtextual indications.

You might be able to educate yourself to recognize particular subtexts and social cues, but can you recognize them when you’re actively looking for others? Or will your capacity for simultaneous observation be limited? This might be true that it would require three brains and six pairs of eyes for you to see so many things at once.

The only thing we can do is start small and practice until these things – why did they say that, what are they experiencing, and what may it indicate — become a habitual thought process. I want to leave you with a quick exercise to set the mood before we wrap up our discussion about subtext. It’s very simple: go out in public and watch people interact. For instance, you could sit in a café and stealthily monitor the individuals at the tables next to yours.

Since you can’t hear the overt dialogue, you must assume what the covert communication’s subtext is saying. Assign the people you are witnessing histories, feelings, and motivations. Make up stories and venture out on a limb. The narrative you conjure up in situations like this will get more and more accurate as you hone your subtext skills.


  1. How often have you found a gap between what you hear people say, your perceptions and the underlying message?
  2. How do you think mastering the art of reading the subtext of messages people convey will help you?
  3. Do you think your ability to read the subtext will make you more likeable and approachable for others?

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