Coldreading Everyday And The Art of Great Conversation

This article was written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, and being republished from the First Taste of Law archives.

Sometimes it is a difficult decision to make – what should I write? There are several ideas in my head – like “How to perform well in a project viva/interview” or “Two secrets to sleep better and stop being sleepy all the time.” However, I decided that I shall not get the exam season get better of me and I shall write on a skill which is lot more interesting – the skill of making another person think that you understand them really well. The skill is called – ‘coldreading.’

OK, think about it – do you ever feel like no one really understands you, but some of them just pretend as if they know everything about you? Stop reading, think about it.

Did you just think “yes, that happens to me sometimes!” well…that happens to everyone. Asking a question like this is called coldreading by mentalists, a kind of magicians who specialize in mind tricks. This is a very controversial skill, psychics who claim to talk to ghosts and have supernatural powers that they use to predict things are usually coldreading. Those who are good at it can not be caught.

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However, this has made a great subject of study for the psychologists. Dating gurus often teach coldreading to make conversations interesting and engaging. To be a coldreader you need not proclaim that you have extraordinary powers, you can just make another person feel that you understand them very well, which can be used to comfort friends in distress, or generally, to make another person feel good. After all, there is no better flattery to an intelligent being than another intelligent being genuinely understanding them or making and educated attempt to understand. This is also a great way to start learning to effectively observe people.

I think the best way to start with cold reading is to understand the Barnum effect. Read this paragraph below:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a lot of unused capacities which you have not turned to your advantages. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented some problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times, you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others” statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times, you are extroverted, affable, sociable while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.


These are observations general enough to apply to almost everyone. This is how astrology is sold. This is why some Facebook quizzes actually seem to be good. There are certain traits, characteristics, experiences that people like to attribute to themselves and if you suggest to them that they possess those, they readily agree. Not deceptively, but genuinely. There is a part of their brain that wants to believe that they have those traits, and that finds support in your statements, which are put on the table as genuine observations by you. So they will jump at it and agree that you are right. As a price, they will be happy to recognize your special ability to understand them 🙂

If you want to try cold reading, there are a few things that you should be aware of:

  1. Be vague without sounding vague: You have to be vague, but the subject should not feel that what you are saying is too vague. How can you achieve that? Just say: I have a feeling that you are about to make a big decision in your life. Well, the truth is we are always making decisions, and at any moment one of those to-be-made decisions seem to be biggest to make. You do not say how big, therefore the subject is reminded of the decision he or she is making – and they are made to think about it. If they are thinking about it, they may end up sharing it with you soon.
  2. Be general, but make it sound specific: people hate it when they know you are generalizing about them. But when you tell them generalized things as if it is really special, they love it if you are stereotyping them positively. You must say general things at the beginning of cold reading, like the statements in the paragraph above – like all astrologers do. from general, you can transition into more specific things depending on the cues the subject give. However, the best thing to do is to be able to say general things that the subject perceives as special to him.
    There are certain things that people do not share with others. Especially with strangers. People tend to think that such information is special to them and no one else knows. Nonetheless, that information can be general – like most people are worried about getting overweight, it’s just that people don’t talk about their own weight gain very often. The good thing is if you can coldread something about a person that he really rarely shares, then he is bound to be surprised.
    Let’s see: Women are very conscious about weight gain, and they don’t like it so they don’t talk about weight gain. They definitely talk about weight loss programme, cool diets etc., but they will not admit even to women, unless they are close enough to share a secret, the details of how they have gained weight lately. Plus they try to hide signs of weight gain. So this is a good subject.
    Just two things, if the woman is obviously and visibly overweight, this won’t work. And you better not sound unkind or insensitive, otherwise god saves you. Say “I don’t think you need worry so much about gaining weight – it’s normal to gain a little – you can expect to have weight fluctuations at this age.” This way, you can sound supportive and also surprise her by telling her that you know she is worried about weight gain. She will identify with it and add meaning depending on at what level she is worried about it. If she is really worried, her reaction will be clear and obvious. If she is not that worried – reaction may not be spectacular but she will mildly agree with you.
    Do you think those who are fit are not insecure about weight gain? absolutely wrong – the fit people are struggling to maintain fitness – and they are the most worried lot.
    Let’s look at another situation. Think of a person who is not very good in a social situation. he knows it and he is anxious about it – but he would not think that other people knows about this anxiety because he never shares it. On the other hand, it is easy to identify a person who is not exactly a ‘fit’ in a social situation and is feeling out of place. If you tell this person that you used to feel like a social misfit sometimes back and then you have managed to overcome it, you will have undivided attention and admiration of this person.
  3. Be casual: The subject of coldreading need not be serious or life-altering things. It is best done in day to day conversations in a casual way. “It looks like you are really interested in cooking.” Maybe the person is not really interested, she never cooks (this is the worst case scenario here) – so she’ll say that. Then you should be able to casually clarify that you meant good cooking by others – not necessarily her own cooking. Now that’s transitioning from specific to general which needs a lot of panache and smoothness in a character to be convincing. The best way to achieve this is to be completely casual and laugh about it all the time!
  4. Say positive things: a subject is likely to be more accommodating when you are saying positive things about him, rather than negative or neutral things. By making negative and neutral observations, you trigger inherent skepticism of a person, and this has the exactly opposite effect of Barnum Effect. Even if they genuinely have such a trait as you suggested, they will contest it. Tell the person what he wants to hear and you have him.
  5. Take Inputs from the Subject before you coldread: rational people want to rationalize everything -they don’t believe in what they can’t rationalize. If they find some easy way to rationalize what you are doing, they will accept it. This is why in some cultures people would attribute absence of mushrooms for lack of rain – it is beyond them to find a rational explanation as to why it is not raining, so they are ready to accept some superstitious story as an explanation. If you are coldreading, people would want to rationalize your behavior. The quicker they find a rational sounding answer, they will accept that apparent explanation. This is why palmists read your palm with a magnifying glass before they do coldreading – to lead you onto a trail of rationalization. If they coldread without taking any inputs, no one would believe them. You can take inputs without making stupid claims like you have magical powers – just talk to the person for a while – and make her feel that you are getting some information from her that she is not actually saying – by observation. It will still freak them out, but you don’t have to suffer the ignominy of claiming supernatural powers.

If any of you try cold-reading – do let me know. Its for fun – please don’t use this knowledge to mislead or cheat people. Rather, catch those who do it. And have lots of interesting conversations – cold reading really opens people up and excites themselves about their own life.


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