How to Become a Student of Human Nature


It’s difficult to lead well without becoming a life-long and intentional student of human nature.

Your accumulation of wisdom toward understanding human behavior is essential to becoming a better leader.

If you’ve raised kids you know that from two’s to teens, it’s not an easy process. And as adults we can be just as challenging.

My practical definition of the study of human nature is “the art of understanding why people do what they do.” What are you learning in this season?

Aren’t you sometimes surprised by human behavior? I am. That’s why I continually seek to understand by asking the question, why?

For example:

  • Why do married couples get a divorce after 30-35-40 years of marriage?
  • Why does a family give up their long-accustomed worship service at the hour they love and adjust their life to a less convenient hour to make room for new people?
  • Why does a person lash out on social media at people they’ve never met?

I’m not suggesting we should formulate mechanical, predictable behavior patterns. That could unfortunately result in over-generalizing and putting people in boxes.

My experience is that people don’t like to be placed in categorized predictable boxes. In fact, there’s a wonderful part of human nature that carries freedom, choices, surprise and delight that we should celebrate.

However, when our freedom as human beings begins to impact the freedom and general well-being of others, a healthy understanding of behavioral patterns is extremely helpful to those in positions of leadership.

Examples of behavioral axioms:

Note: I have purposely included words like common, typical, normal etc., to help us remember to avoid putting people in a box, while simultaneously acknowledging some common baseline behaviors that we can start with.

  • It is common that hurting people hurt people
  • It is common that healthy people want to help others
  • It is typical for insecure people to need attention and reassurance
  • Nearly everyone resists change to some degree
  • It is normal for people to desire their life to count, they long for purpose and meaning
  • It is understood that long-standing habits are difficult to break
  • Everyone wants to love and be loved
  • It is predictable for one to lash out when backed into a corner

(Feel free to add an axiom or two of your own in the comment section below.)

5 Practical Ways to Gain Wisdom About Human Nature

1) Start with a healthy sense of self-awareness and personal margin

If you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are as a person and a leader, you’ll have difficulty becoming a good student of human nature.

The reason this is true is if you lack self-awareness, become lost in personal insecurities or attempt to be someone other than the real you, your perception of others will be inaccurate.

To be a good student of human nature requires a healthy emotional foundation, self-awareness, margin, genuine love, and a desire to help people.

For example, if you or I have little to no emotional margin, (space to give of ourselves) there is little room to focus on others because we are too consumed with navigating our own lives.

When you consider your personal margin, level of stress, and your to-do list, how much room do you have for others?If you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are as a person and a leader, you’ll have difficulty becoming a good student of human nature.Click & Tweet!

2) Love and appreciate people for who they are

The goal of understanding human nature as a leader is not clinical, it’s based on love and a desire to serve with their best interest in mind.

When you see people with a view of their potential and a better life in Christ, the lens with which you interpret and understand their behavior changes. This begins with accepting them for who they are.

It doesn’t end there, as leaders we want to see people grow and become the fullest measure of what God intended. That is an expression of love. Just like if you’re a parent, you want the best for your kids.

When you and I accept people for who they are, but invest ourselves in who they can become, we are best positioned to better understand human nature with a bias for their growth and their good.The goal of understanding human nature as a leader is not clinical, it’s based on love and a desire to serve with their best interest in mind.Click & Tweet!

3) Pay attention and resist quick judgements

With the first two points in mind, you have margin and motivation to pay attention.

Allow me to state the obvious, if you aren’t paying attention to people around you other than at a casual and surface level, you’ll never understand more about what makes people tick.

Paying attention to others means being close enough to connect and engage with them at a heart-level so you can understand what they are doing and why.

Understanding human behavior should always be personal in nature, but over time you are able to discern patterns, like those mentioned in the introduction. These patterns allow you to understand more, at a deeper level, and faster, because you aren’t starting at “zero” each time.

Let me return to another theme, not putting people in a box. Noticing a common behavior isn’t the end of understanding, it’s the beginning. Now you’re able to add their uniqueness and what’s going on that is specific to each person.

As you pay attention to people, be careful not to jump to quick judgments.

Like my earlier illustration of a married couple getting a divorce after more than 30 years of marriage, it would be easy to assume something negative, something that is possibly judgmental. When in fact, I have no idea what is really going on yet.

As you can see, understanding human nature is an art. It takes time and intentionality.

4) Ask meaningful questions and listen carefully

We can never fully understand what’s happening in a person’s life without asking carefully chosen and meaningful questions.

When you love people and care about their best interests, understanding what make them tick and why they do what they do is like a puzzle. If you don’t have all the pieces the picture isn’t clear. Keep asking good questions.

The best and most intuitive form of asking questions is when your next question is based on their previous response. That requires experience.

But you can start by learning the basic characteristics of good questions.

Characteristics of practical and meaningful questions:

  • They are open-ended and invite an explanation. (Don’t use closed questions that require only a yes or a no.)
  • They don’t put the person on the defense or back them into a corner.
  • They are direct and candid.
  • They come from a gracious and loving heart.
  • They have a direction in mind, but not a conclusion.
  • They communicate genuine interest.
  • They commonly result in greater self-awareness and personal growth for the person receiving the questions.

We can never fully understand what’s happening in a person’s life without asking carefully chosen and meaningful questions.Click & Tweet!

5) Learn how to incorporate behavioral axioms as you lead and shepherd people, and always lean into the Holy Spirit’s discernment.

The following is an example of one of the many axioms that are so helpful to me.

“When the response in the moment is greater than the issue at hand, it’s always about something else.”  Focus on discovering the real issue.

As an example, if I’m meeting with someone about a difficult topic where some degree of intensity is anticipated, but the level of emotion erupts to a degree far exceeding the topic at hand, that’s a sure sign that something else is going on underneath.

In that moment, after calming the emotion, it’s important that I focus on creating a safe space that invites the person to talk with me about what is so deeply bothering them.

I’m sure you could give other examples from your own leadership of how knowledge of human behavior connected to a specific axiom allowed you to lead more effectively and ultimately be more helpful.

But we must always remember, when it comes to understanding human behavior, the Holy Spirit is the person who adds wisdom and discernment far beyond our ability. Develop your skills, but always lean into the Holy Spirit’s guidance.