The conversational query “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” may have become a cliche, but rephrased (as in the heading above), it may help us to think a little more deeply about how we try to understand each other.
We have been urged not to judge another until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. We’ve also been encouraged to emulate the thinking of philosophers, scientists, and other role models – in effect, to ‘put on the mind’ of another much like we might wear a hat.
Our everyday speech refers to this human capacity (or potential) to see the world through another’s eyes. Hence:
“Great minds think alike.”
“What are you – a mind reader? That’s what I was thinking!”
“I hope you can see the problem from my point of view.”
“I hope we can see eye to eye.”
Seeing the world through the eyes of another, we hope to understand their perspective and perhaps even, their underlying motivations.
Everyday mind-reading and cognitive bias
We do some form of mind-reading when we are driving a car or riding a bike. Anticipating what others on the road are about to do, often based on quite subtle clues, is good ‘defensive driving’, and usually keeps us out of trouble.
I recall being in the dentist’s chair while a dentist and assistant were providing treatment, and realising that they were so ‘in-sync’ as a team, that the assistant knew what the dentist wanted to do next without being asked. Obviously, well-practiced procedures play a part, as does non-verbal communication. Doubtless, they had rehearsed the micro-signals that would communicate messages like “distract the patient by talking about something funny or interesting – meanwhile pass me the syringe”. ‘Mind-reading’ is easier when you have practiced your procedures for 10 years or so.
I have worked with some outstanding executive assistants who demonstrated their anticipatory mind-reading skills quite regularly. I would find myself being presented with something I was about to ask for, and marvelling at their pre-cognitive abilities. In fact, of course, they had asked themselves ‘if I was in Garry’s shoes, what would I need to deal with this situation?’ Rather than wait for the request, they took the initiative and prepared the item so it was available for immediate use. Where it hadn’t yet been requested, the item was invariably a great suggestion, and appreciatively utilised.
Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise: How we understand what others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, notes that “being able to read the minds of others enables understanding between friends, forgiveness amongst enemies, empathy between strangers, and cooperation between countries, and couples, and co-workers. Without it, cooperative society is barely imaginable.”
He argues, however, that using our imagination to project what we think another person might think or feel is likely to reflect our own biases. Epley suggests that the most common errors we make in trying to mindread are due to “excessive egocentrism, overreliance on stereotypes, and an all-too-easy assumption that others’ minds match their actions”. It would therefore be preferable to listen to people discussing their experiences and views if we really want to understand them better. Perspective sharing will also be required (see below).
Perspective-taking and empathy
‘Perspective taking’ is the name we have given this effort to perceive or understand a concept or situation from another’s point of view. We sometimes call this empathy, but also our ‘theory of mind’ – although that term might more accurately be used to simply recognise that another person has thoughts and feelings that are not the same as our own.
Many people have a hard enough time knowing their own mind, much less knowing the mind of another.
Our non-profit organisations use a range of measures to gauge the perspectives of others, including:
- surveys to try to understand stakeholders’ thinking and the views of the wider community,
- debates and fora to allow people to speak to their different points of view (or queries), and
- social media to explore various responses to events and opinions on issues.
‘Active listening’ has long been recommended for people in helping roles, and over more recent decades, in leadership roles also. This involves paying full attention to the person we are with, expressing interest in their point of view, and engaging (empathising) with them. That engagement will often use speech mirroring to check whether the listener has accurately grasped the other person’s thinking or feeling. Rephrasing or paraphrasing what the listener has heard provides the one being ‘helped’ with the opportunity to either confirm the understanding or to correct any misinterpretation. The emotionally intelligent leader will combine active listening with reading body language and other non-verbal cues – whether they be gross or subtle.
Socialthinking.com offers resources mainly targeting schools, but some could be just as relevant for social perspective-taking within workplaces. A version of their outline of the steps involved in perspective-taking, which happen within milliseconds, is offered in the chart below. See also ampcreative.com/guide-to-perspective-taking/
Everyday mind-reading is a two-way street. If shared understandings are to be achieved, both parties need to listen and speak with that shared intention. This is not always the case of course, and so other methods are called upon when ‘negotiating’ those waters. The Harvard Program on Negotiation is one of the better resource repositories for situations like these.
A ‘Connection Culture’
Michael Lee Stallard’s book Connection Culture: the competitive advantage of shared identity, empathy and understanding at work, identifies 15 building blocks for effective engagement and alignment of organisation ‘teams’ – five for each of the three core elements of his model; Vision, Value, and Voice.
Connecting through each of these elements involves the use of a few familiar methods from our governance and management toolkits, alongside some additional ideas that you may find suit the needs of your organisation. Charts for each of the core elements appear below.