Pattern Spotting

“People’s communication and behaviors are predictable once you know the pattern!”

Years ago, I read an article in Scientific American about pattern spotting while bird watching. If I remember correctly, knowing what birds you should expect to see and knowing their patterns of flight, landing, singing, and so forth, was a big key to bird identification. Pattern spotting was especially important when trying to identify a migrant bird that just happened to be passing by a local location. It was by spotting the difference in bird patterns that you could make your case for seeing some unusual species. The bird article was interesting to me because it was very similar to my made-up concept of “pattern spotting”. I use pattern spotting to help understand human behavior and it was also apparently being used to spot special and unusual species of birds!

Well, here is what I mean by pattern spotting and it has nothing to do with birds. Pattern spotting is simply noting people’s patterns and then predicting their future behavior based on their past patterns. The old saying, “Watch what he does, not what he says,” partially describes pattern spotting. The overall theory is that people are internally consistent. In other words, they will always make sense (at least to themselves) even if the outsider can’t quite find the logic. This “internal logic” is what shows up in patterns.

For example, if someone is usually late, well, it is a good bet that they may be late next time. One of my dearest friends is traditionally 45-90 minutes late. I can count on her to be consistently late. As a matter of fact, when she is invited over for any reason and if the timing is important, like when I might be serving dinner or leave to make a show, I would just invite her over earlier. Yes, I have talked to her repeatedly about this pattern. She also has apologized repeatedly. She even thinks that it’s rude to be late all the time and even promised to not do it anymore, but the pattern remains, despite her best intentions.

Interestingly, pattern spotting goes much deeper than simple behavior like being late; it can also be emotional. I once had a client, who was a strong, career-oriented women in a powerful senior position, cry the first day I met her.  I was in her office interviewing her about the entire senior team and she cried while telling me about others and how she felt. After that meeting, as I started working with her on several other projects, in almost every meeting regardless of topics or discussions, when she and I got alone, the tears would just start to flow. Now of course, there are a million explanations as to why she would cry, but that is not the point. The point is I could predict that she would cry in our meeting.

We all have patterns that make us comfortable and we tend to stick to them.  Even in a group, there are group patterns. Have you ever noticed that in a classroom or a conference room, once people take their seats, they will tend to stay in those seats for the rest of the session, whether the session is one-day or three-days? Even at the Dodger stadium, I have noticed that at some point in the game, usually toward the late middle innings, some group will start a wave and after three or four tries, the entire stadium will participate. This happens every time I go.

What about universal patterns – have you ever noticed those? You do not even need to see the pattern in the other to be able to predict with decent accuracy. If the person falls into a universal pattern you can also make a pretty good assumption about what behavior will follow. For example, probably the most famous universal patterns are the archetypes Carl Jung discovered – the ones like Mother, Warrior, Leader (Sovereign), and Magician. These patterns play out in a large way throughout a person’s life. You can count on a Mother pattern to nurture and show support and offer love most of the time to close friends as well as strangers. The Mother will also act very quickly to protect her children. The Warrior pattern is fierce and strong.  People who exhibit this pattern have courage and ready themselves for battle. The Leader leads and feels responsible for his people; he wants his lands to flourish, his people to be proud, and he looks out for the best interests of his followers. Finally, the Magician is wise and sees what most others miss. They often act as advisors to the spiritual leaders of their community.

These classic patterns, once recognized, are another way to understand people and predict what they are most likely going to do or how they will probably react to any situation they find themselves in. You can often spot the Leader and the Magician; you can see the Mother and the Warrior. You will probably also find the lover and the child, as well as the troublemaker and the pleaser, and once recognized, predict the direction of their actions as well.

I have thought about making a list of all the patterns you can recognize in others, but it truly is a never-ending list. All you have to do to understand this technique is to start looking, watching, observing others, and taking mental notes. Once you identify a familiar pattern, your predictive ability will be significantly increased.

Because of my past education and training I see patterns in everything and everyone. Some typical behavior patterns include, amiable (people pleaser), analytical (facts and only the facts), driver (“get it done or get out of my way”, “just bullet points, please”, and “do not waste my time”) and expressive (never lets the facts get in the way of a good story, excitable, contagious). Or on a finer cut, I can apply the Myers Briggs categories. Are they introverts or extroverts (do they get their energy from within or from outside stimulus)? Do they use data to make decisions or are final decisions made from intuition (sensing or intuitive)? Do they move through the world by thinking about or feeling things (thinking vs. feeling)? And finally, do they like to leave decisions open to the last minute where deadlines are really start dates or do they desire and need quick closure finishing important tasks before they are due (perception vs. judgment)?

Other categorizations I use often come from adult learning theory. Do they jump in and learn, then look back on their mistakes for new knowledge (doing)? Do they like to read, watch, and reflect on others actions’ to learn (observing)? Is it more important to them to know the theory and mechanics of something first before they start, like reading all the instructions before beginning, (conceptualizing)? Or do they prefer a logical step-by-step manual (trying pattern)? Knowing the pattern of how people prefer to learn helps me predict their behaviors and allows me to be a much more effective teacher.

To teach, I have to inspire and motivate. There are different patterns with motivation as well. Are people motivated by accomplishing things in a unique and innovative way (achievement)? Or do they get a lot of their energy from being social, making friends and staying in touch with others (affiliation)? Or are they motivated by having an impact on people and being in control (power)?

Conflict is another area for identification of pretty universal patterns.  Some people tend to avoid conflict all together and they just disappear in the face of disagreement or negotiation. Some like to compete using a win/lose format while some accommodate, always giving in to the other’s desire. Others prefer to compromise, while still others tend to collaborate to achieve a win/win situation.

Of course, all these patterns mix and match with each other and it is certainly unfair to say we are the same way in every situation. However, if you watch and observe folks, all of their patterns usually fall into a narrow band, making them way more predictable than they or you might think. You can go on and on with patterns: finding your own, naming ones you see all the time, and then using them to help you understand the behaviors of others.

When my son Cody was a boy, he became very cranky and emotional whenever he was too tired or had no food in his system. I witnessed this pattern for years and years. If I were to spend the day with him going to a ball game or going out wakeboarding, I needed to make sure he was well fed. In the beginning, he didn’t realize his pattern and would not prepare his stomach in advance, since he wouldn’t eat if he wasn’t hungry. Knowing his pattern, I was aware that as soon the hunger or fatigue set in, he would lose his emotional balance and stability, and once he crossed this balance threshold, there was no going back. So before a long day with Cody, I would ask him to eat something in advance or to pack some snacks. Sometimes, I would just carry food for him.

Bruce, a very good friend of mine, had the pattern of story-topping. Over the years, Bruce has changed, grown, and improved steadily, as he consciously worked hard to overcome his unconscious patterns. Whenever Bruce was in a group setting and people were telling stories, the only way he knew how to participate in group-talk was to tell an even bigger story. For example, one person would say, “We skied at Alta and had 6 inches of fresh powder one morning,” and then Bruce would add, “Well, we skied at Whistler last month and it dumped two feet in one night.” Often time, we get 2 story-toppers in a group, and the chain would continue with “well.”  “Well, we were at Vail and it snowed everyday for a week and the back bowls were going off.” “Well, we went Heli-skiing where every run was pristine”…and on and on. So what? Who cares that Bruce or anyone is a story-topper; it actually made for good entertainment. However, what Bruce didn’t learn until later is that some group members were quite offended. By telling bigger and grander stories, Bruce would unknowingly insult people. And, he couldn’t help himself; it was just his pattern. If you have a friend who is a story-topper, you might as well accept it and love the person for who he is, not what you want him to be.

I could go on and on with patterns but I think you get the picture. People are internally consistent and the better you are at pattern spotting, the better you can predict their behavior and the more effective you can be with them. And let me remind you, if you are going to pattern spot for predictability and understanding, always do so without judgment and coming from a place of love and acceptance. People do not need to be the way you want them to be. They will just be themselves, and remember that it is not your job to judge or critique them. Rather, to accept them for who they are, support them, and love them. You have infinite capability to love people, to be an effective communicator and to be a compassionate human; why not use it?