When you meet someone for the first time, what do you tend to notice about him or her? Pause and think about your response. Do you tend to notice his or her appearance – manner of dress, physical attractiveness (or lack thereof), the quality of eyes, hair, teeth, skin, body size and weight?

Do you tend to notice his or her demeanor – smile, eye contact, friendliness, interest in and willingness to engage with others, use of touch and personal space? Do you focus on his or her intelligence, verbal skills, ability to articulate ideas, speed of replies and grasp of complex ideas?

Do you focus on his or her emotional qualities – easy to laugh, gentle, supportive, seductive? I’m barely scratching the surface of all there is to “tune into” with another person, and listing all the things there are to observe and respond to would take volumes. (In fact, volumes have been written about what we notice and respond to, both consciously and unconsciously, in others.)

But some characteristics clearly matter more than others because they have a stronger influence on how other people perceive them and behave toward them. You need to know what you’re looking for, and how to understand what people are telling you “between the lines” of what they say, so that you have realistic reactions to them.

It may sound a little cold, a little clinical to you, but I want to encourage you to practice assessing virtually everyone you meet and engage with in some way, whether it’s someone you intend to date or marry, someone you’re paired with in a team-building exercise at work, or someone you’re thinking of hiring or partnering up with in a new business.

Any time you are going to be in a position of potentially being influenced by the actions of someone else, you need to have a better-than-average grasp of how this person does things in order to know how to position yourself with him or her. By “position yourself,” I mean to say that you have to define your relationship with this person in specific circumstances.

Is it a relationship of equals, or is this an unequal relationship because this person is your boss or your child? You, and only you, can decide things like how much information to share, how much responsibility to take for what happens, and all the other factors that determine how this relationship will function. If you’re not used to thinking your way through relationships because you just assume “everyone is pretty much alike” or, “most people have a conscience” or, “I’m no bargain so I should be grateful for anyone just noticing me,” then you can begin to understand why your relationships may suffer.

Sometimes, people have a negative first reaction to the notion of deliberately assessing others. They say, “C’mon, it’s just a conversation at a cocktail party,” or, “Hey, it’s just a temporary project we share at work,” or the ever popular, “But, I love him (her)!” They don’t want to assess people because it seems too detached, too calculating. They want the freedom to follow their heart and get involved in one way or another. But then they complain bitterly when the relationship (predictably) goes badly.

Some people think assessing others is unnecessary because they naively think that if they treat the other person well or fairly, they will be treated well or fairly in turn. They are nice people. Foolish, but nice.

The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) does not preclude your being insightful and wise about what you do unto others and, in turn, what you allow them to do unto you. If you make the mistake of believing other people are just like you, you will be blindsided when you find out the hard way they’re willing to say and do things you’re not.

Assessing others doesn’t mean being unfriendly or cold or detached. It means being observant, neutral (without prejudging), as you interact with them in friendly, polite, and inviting ways. It further means recognizing and considering the implications of what people say and do, and choosing your own responses and behaviors in relation to them accordingly.

Acquiring enough good information about a person helps you be deliberate in deciding just how vulnerable to be with him or her, how much of your heart and soul (and body) to share. It doesn’t mean being overly suspicious of people. It means being cautious about making yourself vulnerable until you have a good sense of to whom you’re making yourself vulnerable, someone who can both respect and protect that vulnerability.