Mind Reading: A Necessary Science, Not Fictional Magic

AdobeStock_96159207The 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 negative answer, I was more intrigued by the fact that in spite of a number of personally-revealing conversations, she was clueless regarding my orientation.

Her lack of mind reading tools resulted in prediction failure.

As a business person, you can’t afford that kind of prediction failure. 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.

Mind-reading skills grow out of two disciplines:the rhetorical competency of “close reading” and the communication competency of “barrier resolution.” Close reading tools are mind-reading competencies that enable you to go beyond the words and evidence that’s presented. Barrier-resolution tools are competencies that help you limit your relationship errors.

Ultimately, predicting human behavior 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.

We want our thinking to be consistent. So, for example, what we think about the environment may share some basic assumptions and values with what we think about government programs for the poor. What’s especially useful about these tools is that once we identify a person’s set of values or convictions we are able to predict how a person will think and behave related to other similar issues. Obviously mind reading tools are not foolproof, but they are highly valuable in nearly all the important relationships of life: business, investing, schooling, complex decision making, even choice of friends.

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?

Let’s begin with a non-business “case.” In a hilarious interview, Jared Diamond provided 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 3 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.

If you’re an effective listener and your antennae are up, this is great material for the basics of mind reading. Although you may want to read the rest of the interview, these three responses tell you an awful lot about Diamond and his fundamental child-raising ideology. Ideology is a person’s web of convictions and commitments. Significantly, few are aware of their own ideologies. But a “close reader” can usually pick up on a person’s ideologies and know what the other thinks and will do about a large number of given subjects. Once developed, I raised my predicting competencies another 20% to 25%. In my business that enhanced my prediction skills, kept me out of trouble and created new opportunities.

A person’s ideology drives both his thinking and his behavior. To understand a person’s ideology about child-raising, work, business, government, religion or most any subject, 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. It’s very important to listen actively, effectively and accurately. Sometimes you may need to parrot or paraphrase back to be certain–and to let the person know you’re listening.

People come up with all kinds of statements. Sometimes it’s original with them, but more often they’re saying—and believing–what they’ve heard from others or read somewhere. The statement has lodged in their brain and they’ve given it credibility. But my neighbor was mouthing off about kids who have “no boundaries” and no parent to “lay down the rules.” I found myself thinking about where she learned to mouth off about her likes and dislikes. It was a recurring pattern. So why does she choose that language style and what does that say about her assumptions?

Diamond, very matter-of-factly, says he had decided to let his kid make his own decision “within reason.” 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 in 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. Diamond is not mouthing off.

  1. 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 varies widely and 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. We’d think we’d done a poor job of child-raising if we couldn’t trust our kids.

So Diamond assumes that his son could be trusted to make his own decisions except in extreme situations. In contrast, my neighbor’s assumptions suggest that she believed that her children needed her to make decisions and that they would go astray without her guidance.

Even if both assumptions are correct, they are fairly obvious, superficial assumptions. So go deeper to enhance your future predictions about a person. At the extremes, people who have a strong rules orientation can also be highly conserving, inflexible, orderly, perfectionistic and sometimes controlling. That’s certainly not all bad stuff. Order, for example, is much to be preferred over chaos. Kids with a little bit of structure (order) tend to do better in school and life. At the other end of the continuum are people without rules: highly changeable, lacking order and time wasting. And that, too, is not completely bad stuff. The highly changeable, for example, can also be adaptive and willing to look outside the box.

The previous paragraph reminds me of a very important warning: Never, never try to mind read and predict behavior solely on the basis of one or two experiences with a person. You’ll always need to check out your insight into their assumptions and ideology. When is the assumption true and when doesn’t it hold water. None of us are internally consistent in our thinking or behaviorally consistent in our actions.

Once you’re comfortable identifying this level of assumptions, you can take a third step and go still deeper into a person’s ideology. And that’s where the really good stuff resides.  After several conversations, you can begin to get a lock on the person’s more profound views about being fully human, the nature of relationships and reality.

Freud believed that anxiety is our most common feature. In contrast I think that trust and distrust are the most common human features, features that support optimism or pessimism.  In business, I’m inevitably thinking about whether a person fundamentally trusts reality or not, and whether a person initially trusts people or not. A proportion of bosses, for example, trust people until they’ve screwed up on several occasions. Other bosses start out not trusting people and won’t move to trust until a person has proven himself. These deeply underlying assumptions and attitudes provide me with the predictive ability to determine how I make a proposal, when and where I can disagree, even whether or not I can count on a person to follow through on an agreement.

Talking to one potential client, I decide, based on her underlying reality structure, that I need to write up a three page proposal and hold off the cost summary until we’ve had further conversations. Talking to another potential client, I figure out that all that’s necessary is to write a brief paragraph and attach a bill. I can also tell one client that I think his idea is full of shit—making it possible for us to get to work quickly. While with another client, I’m very cautious about disagreeing, realizing that it’s going to take a lot of time for him to trust me and my ideas. It’s knowing the person’s ideological mindset and underlying values and convictions that enable me to move on my insights.

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 a person’s assumptions. Still, if you want to ramp up your predictive competencies, this is exceptionally important.

  1. What should the audience 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 these are clearly spelled out, but not always. The value of close reading is that you have a far richer understanding of a person, going well beyond what he is saying or proposing. What the audience should think or do often ends up going well beyond the particular subject of the conversation, impacting wide ranges of thought and action.

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. Don’t ignore the fact that though the talker doesn’t ask you to think or behave the way he or she does, persuasion is implicit within plain information, especially when the behavior is considered to be superior.

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 family 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.

  1. Who is empowered or disempowered? Successful mind reading begins with understanding the speaker’s assumptions and figuring out their orientation to power. Power is always at work to an 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 “rules-oriented” friend was keeping the power for herself rather than giving it to her children.

Another way to get at empowerment is to ask what sort of hierarchies are implied by the text: who it says ought to “be in charge” and who not. If you understand a person’s attitude toward power, you’ve got another finger on how he views the world, his personal and institutional relationships. Even his organizational politics. Significantly, understanding a person’s attitude toward power tell you how he categorizes: how he grades, rates, classifies and groups individuals, organizations and even competencies or skills.

Obviously, this question gives you a lot of insight about your manager, the organization or even the company business. 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 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 cues supporting your decision. Three to five cues 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, motivation, 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.

Although I personally use a more full-orbed model that includes rhetoric, clinical psychology, communication and anthropology, business folk don’t have the education, time or the will to learn all that. Furthermore, I always start with these mind-reading strategies.  I believe that the cognitive issues are far more important in reading people than psychological and nonverbal issues. In business you don’t need to be able to read a person like a book. Save that for the highly educated professionals who engage in the business of executive assessment or jury selection.

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