31/05/2013

By Gavin Meikle, Head Of Learning And Founder Of Inter-Activ


As a communication skills trainer, I have the pleasure of meeting and working with thousands of different people from many diverse organisations. Over the years I have noticed one particular human trait that is common to everyone. It’s the perception that we can accurately know what someone else is thinking based on a tiny piece of behaviour. I call it mind reading.

Let me give you an example to help you understand what I mean. A lady on one of my courses said to me “The real problem is my boss doesn’t trust me.” When I asked her how she “knew” that her boss didn’t trust her she replied — “Oh it’s because she looks at me in that “funny way” when she asks me to do something.” When I asked her if she had ever asked her boss if he really didn’t trust her, she said no, and that she didn’t need to ask because of that look.

This lady was a middle manager, with a good education and a responsible job in a prestigious company. And, before I get accused of sexism, I’d like to state that I find this tendency to “mind read” the motives behind others behaviours, is equally prevalent in men. It seems that it is part of our human nature to make meaning out of other people’s behaviours, but the crazy thing is that most people never test these theories out.

I was trained as a scientist and one of the few things I recall from those years in University was the premise that it’s a scientist’s job to come up with a theory for why some observed phenomenon happens. Once they have a theory their job is to try and disprove it. Only if you cannot disprove it, can you have any faith in its validity.

When it comes to interpreting human behaviour on the other hand, most people seem to forget the latter part. They see the behaviour and then accept, as gospel truth, the first plausible theory that their brain comes up with. How crazy is that!

I am convinced that most of the motivation we ascribe to other peoples' behaviours is totally and utterly inaccurate! You can’t stop yourself jumping to conclusions but it’s much smarter to test those conclusions before you act on them!

Imagine the effect that erroneous assumptions can and do make in your personal and professional life. These sort of unchallenged interpretations are often at the heart of a raft of business problems from low level conflict to major negotiation breakdowns.

Do yourself a favour. The next time you find yourself “mind reading” somebody based on their behaviours, remember it’s just a working hypothesis. Before acting on your theory, try to check it out first. One practical suggestion is to see how many alternative reasons you can come up with for that behaviour before you decide which one is the “right one”