The other evening after listening to a neighbor talk about her family I asked whether she was "rules-oriented." I was certain she was, but I wanted to double-check my prediction. "Of course," she said. “That's the best way to raise kids. Aren't you?" Amused by her shock at my strongly negative answer, I was more intrigued by the fact that she was clueless regarding my orientation.
Over several weeks I had given my neighbor a number of clues about myself, but her lack of mind-reading tools resulted in prediction failure.
As a businessperson, you can’t afford such obvious failures. Your ability to predict others’ thinking and behavior is not only necessary for working with your boss, peers, subordinates, clients, and teams, it’s also necessary for overall career success. With mind-reading tools I’ve been able to raise my predicting success between 20% and 25%. In my business that regularly brought useful collaboration with managers and executives, kept me out of trouble and created new opportunities.
Mind reading tools grow out of two disciplines: the rhetorical competency of "close reading" and the communication competency of “barrier resolution.” Ultimately, mind reading is built on the well-accepted fact that ways of thinking tend to be systematic. People tend to hold well-connected kinds of values and convictions in their thinking, making accurate predictions quite possible in numerous areas.
So how can you up the ante on your mind-reading skills? In short, how can you become a successful "predictor" of others’ thinking and behavior?
In a hilarious interview, Jared Diamond provides some great "stuff" for building your mind-reading skills. Diamond is the author of some of the best popular science books. From the Sunday NYTimes magazine, here are three interview questions with his answers:
Is it true that you raised your sons, Max and Joshua, like Pygmies? Yes, but we did not go to what I would consider the extremes. In traditional societies, children are allowed to make their own decisions, so we let them make their own decisions within reason, with some surprising results. When Max was three years old, he saw his first snake, and he demanded one as a pet. We bought him a nonpoisonous snake, and eventually he had 147 different pets: snakes, frogs, salamanders and other reptiles and amphibians.
That approach to parenting could be seen as spoiling children. Theoretically yes and in practice no. I think you get brats when you raise children who are told what to do for seven hours a day and in the remaining one or two hours they express their will, which has been frustrated all day. New Guinean kids are not brats, and my kids were not brats.
Have your children been to New Guinea? No, it’s too dangerous.
These three responses say an awful lot about Diamond and lend themselves to mind reading his fundamental child-raising ideology, that web of convictions and commitments. Over just a short time, a "close reader" can usually pick up on a person's ideologies. That person becomes predictable.
A person's ideology drives both his thinking and his behavior. Once you understand a person’s ideology about a subject, you can start mind reading. Understanding a person's ideology about most anything of significance, whether child-raising, work, business, government, politics or religion, four questions are important.
1. What is the speaker saying? Start with the obvious. Don't get caught up in agreeing or disagreeing with what you hear. Listen actively, effectively, and accurately. You may need to parrot or paraphrase back to be sure or just to let the person know you're listening.
My neighbor was mouthing off about kids who have “no boundaries” and no parent to "lay down the rules." Diamond was plainspoken and matter-of-fact, saying he’d let his kid make his own decision "within reason." Like my neighbor, he'd had a set of experiences that supported his conclusion. Paying attention to the Pygmies, to say the least, is freakish.
But since his son, Max, had "147 different pets," there was a phenomenal amount of freedom given to the kid. Notice also that he supported his conclusion with the statement that New Guinean kids are not brats, and my kids were not brats.
2. What does the statement ask the audience to assume? This is what I call the subtext. Every argument or conclusion begins with some assumptions. Even the shout, "Run. The house is on fire!" is based on assumptions about the danger of fire, the idea that human bodies cannot withstand fire, and so forth. Assumptions are those beliefs that a person takes for granted.
What counts as assumptions vary, but it can tell us a lot about the person. My friend assumed that since I was a former Baptist minister I'd be a rules-oriented parent. Though most Baptists and many religious folk are rules oriented, that's not true of all. Rules-oriented parents typically believe their children lack the maturity to be trusted. These assumptions fit neither me nor my wife.
My neighbor's rules orientation suggests that she believed that her children needed her to make decisions and that they would go astray without her guidance. In contrast Diamond assumes from his knowledge of the Pygmy culture that his son could be trusted to make his own decisions except in “extreme situations.”
This shift to an analysis of assumptions is difficult for most listeners. We just don't automatically go there. And unless you've had courses in philosophy, psych, argumentation, or rhetoric and communication, you're probably not used to thinking about the assumptions a person is making. At a deeper level a person’s assumptions tie together to become ideologies. So if you want to ramp up your prediction competencies, this is exceptionally important.
3. What should the listener think or do? This question focuses on what the speaker expects the listener to do. It emphasizes the conclusions or behaviors the speaker is asking for. Sometimes the behaviors are clearly spelled out, but without direct, stated orders or requests.
Neither my neighbor nor Diamond directly tells listeners to raise children their way, but they both explain their behavior. Though Diamond does not ask for the reader to raise children in a permissive atmosphere, he certainly affirms that such an atmosphere does not spoil the child, creating brats. My neighbor was plainly saying that tight reins on kids are the way all parents should go, even though she didn't say that directly.
The statements of both my neighbor and Diamond should be perceived as an act of indirect persuasion.
It's important to understand that ideologies are interconnected assumptions. To ask someone to think or do a thing implies a wider moral or behavioral standard that the speaker desires. If, for example, your executive tells you he manages employees tightly, that probably implies that he controls finances, job expectations, scheduling, and deadlines the same way. And he was expecting the same of you.
In contrast, I grew up in a household where my father told me how he managed things but there was no expectation on his part that I should manage time, schoolwork, or relationships his way. I’ve found, often to my chagrin, that’s not the way most managers and execs think.
4. Who is empowered or disempowered? Successful mind reading begins with understanding the speaker's assumptions and their orientation to power. Power is always at work to some extent in a person's statements. Even an advertisement for soup empowers the people selling soup. Diamond's statements point to the empowerment of his children. In contrast my neighbor believed parents should keep their power and not pass it on to their children.
Another way to get at empowerment is to ask what sort of hierarchies are implied by how a person talks: who he says ought to "be in charge" and who not? Does the person give away and share power readily, or keep power for himself? If you understand a person's attitude toward power, you've got another finger on how he views the world, as well as his personal and institutional relationships. Even his politics.
The positions of Diamond and my neighbor pose highly differing attitudes and commitments in relationships. They have differing perceptions of what it means to be human, the limits of trust, the way to work with people, the potential for human learning, et cetera, et cetera. I noticed in my neighbor’s conversation that it played out in the way separate checkbooks and expenditure decisions were made. I couldn’t identify with what I saw as the lack of collaboration in her marriage.
Freud viewed power as issues of anxiety. I think of them as underlying matters of trust/distrust and optimism/pessimism. But obviously, the power question gives you much insight about your manager, the organization, or even the company business — and how to work successfully. A culture’s view of power affects a person’s attitudes and behavior toward power. Think, for example, about who's empowered or disempowered at Walmart? And contrast that with Google, a very flat organization. Then think about your own manager, colleagues, executives, and firm.
A Very Important Caveat
Never, never attempt to act on one mind-reading experience. Before you decide on a person’s ideology, be sure to have identified several different clues supporting your decision. Three to five clues can usually be trusted.
In today’s business world you need to know especially how a person goes about problem solving and decision making, their adaptability and flexibility, thinking skills, creativity and innovation, orientation to learning, managing of people, and such things. My experience coaching clients tells me that the use of these four keys can eventually give a person what is needed of that for 90% of the time.
In business you don’t need to be able to read a person like a book. I believe that the cognitive issues are far more important in reading people than psychological and nonverbal issues. Save that for the highly educated professionals who engage in the business of executive assessment or jury selection.
For much more extensive development of these four same keys, go my blog, Mind Reading 101, on my personal blogsite. You’ll find fuller explanations, how-to recommendations, and richer examples.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.