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READING PEOPLE: Insights & Tools for Knowing What Your Students Are Thinking

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

For an independent voice pro, relationships are a big deal.

They’re the foundation of what we do. If we aren’t confident and adept at managing the relationships with our clients - relationships that can sometimes last for years - then we aren’t teaching well. Relationships are literally enmeshed with the pedagogy we work so hard on. If the interpersonal thing ain’t happenin’, then the learning isn’t happening as well as it could.

We need to have an awareness of our clients' thoughts and feelings both because they’re not always forthcoming about these things, and because sometimes they simply don't know what they are.

Those thoughts and feelings are literally a part of their voice! The functioning of the voice is influenced by the neurochemical messages the brain is receiving, and the hormonal messages the tissue of the vocal folds is receiving. So a student can be generating thoughts that are calling up feelings that are affecting the outcome of the lesson or coaching session. That’s a big deal!



We all know that any given lesson can be a building block to a greater whole, a turning point in the student's progress, or a shift in their self-perception. You’ve probably had one or more of those yourself. Our ability to read our students is not only important to our livelihood, it can be important to our student’s entire life.

Thinking about this made me think of Tessa West.

Tessa West is a psychology professor. She researches interpersonal accuracy, in other words, how well we read each other. She’s also the author of the book Jerks at Work, has written a number of articles, and has been on some podcasts. So I refreshed my personal Tessa West file in order to share some insights.

Some elements of her interpersonal accuracy research jumped out at me as being important to voice coaches and teachers:

  • Power dynamics

  • Overestimating our ability to read people

  • Egocentric bias

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a really big deal for us. As we engage in the intimate, one-on-one interactions required by our work, we don’t feel we’re exercising power over our clients. We probably feel that we’re nurturing, informing, and guiding them. But they very likely feel a power dynamic.

If they’re children or teens, they see you (and all their teachers) as being in a position of power. Let’s face it, if at any time you chose to use your position of Voice Authority to be harshly critical or unkind, it would be devastating to that child or teen.

Your adult clients are already good at a number of things, and have chosen to venture into this area about which they know very little. They’re making themselves vulnerable. You are in the power position.

This matters because your student, as the low-power person in the relationship, is going to tend to mask what they’re thinking and feeling. Further, they’re going to be more actively trying to read you.

In the teacher-student relationship, your student’s antennae are up. You have to make the decision, over and over again, in every single lesson, to be aware of this dynamic. How to make the best use of that will be clearer as we look at the next two things.

We overestimate our ability to read people

I don't have to say much more about this fact, except to say it’s something to keep in mind.

When you think you’ve accurately read someone’s intentions, feelings, or thoughts, and without checking with them, concluded that you know what those intentions, feelings, or thoughts are…you’re probably wrong. Even the popular “body language” vocabulary cannot be trusted.

People are very idiosyncratic. If I cross my arms while we’re talking, I may feel defensive, or maybe I’m cold. I may feel self-conscious about my appearance, or it may mean my chair doesn’t have arms and I don’t know where to put my hands. You just can’t know without asking, so try not to read people.

Egocentric Bias

This is the fancy, clinical name for something we all do.