Faulty Mind-Reading

by Lou Solomon dated January 11, 2011

Mind-reading is the human practice of inferring the intentions of others.  We can actually get pretty good at this in our personal relationships. We take in all the non-verbal clues along with everything we know about a person, and mind-read.  We know when something is wrong with a friend.  We can sense insincerity from an associate of many years.  But failures still happen all the time.

How many personal mind-reading failures have you experienced lately?  I had a mini one just this morning when I concluded that my husband Sandy was being patronizing when he called to say, “I made it into work but I don’t think you’ll be able to get down the driveway.”  He knew another inch of snow and ice was making our steep driveway treacherous and he was looking out for me.  But for a nanosecond I read his mind as it was thinking “You’re not the best driver in the world.”  And there you go.  Faulty mind-reading.

The less we know about someone the more unreliable our attempts at mind-reading become, yet we have the mindset that we are just as qualified to mind-read people in a different culture, religion or political party.  This is so primal, unconscious and instantaneous it’s hard to catch ourselves doing it.  But if our goal is enlightenment, we have to work at it.  We have to catch ourselves mind-reading people who are unfamiliar.

This is no small feat.  There is a gravitational pull to react in judgment.  But if you look, between stimulus and response, there’s a gap.  Stephen Covey wrote about the gap in Seven Habits.  When someone says something that threatens your need to be right, instead of heating up, you can pause for a split second, suspend your thinking and listen out of curiosity.

This is the kind of leadership that separates the boys from the men and the girls from the women.  It is a lifetime assignment to look for the gap and use it wisely.  Some of us are learning to suspend our judgment long enough to see things newly.  Personally, I’m still working hard on this and some days are better than others.

If we read the mind of an unlikeable, untrustworthy person, we tend to sentence that person to a static place.  We keep them there and we don’t give them the opportunity grow, change or be right.

Just last month a fellow came to Interact Studio masquerading as a curmudgeon.  He was very smart and valuable to the organization, but kept himself separate and unpopular with his teammates.  They had relegated James to the role of non-team-player.  But the moment he began speaking about what life had taught him and what he cared about, he was not only likable, he was lovable.  Everyone in the room softened as they changed their minds about him.

For ten years I have watched this very thing happen over and over and over.   When people take the risk to be genuine, vulnerable and completely present, barriers to trust dissolve.  And when trust is restored, step back.  There is a quickening around performance.

Faulty mind-reading is at the root of arguments, mediocre performance, poor communication, misunderstandings and in the extreme, hatred.  Without Authentic Communication and the willingness to do the hard work of true leadership, we can’t overcome barriers to trust.  We can’t create the future we want for our lives, organizations and communities.

Note:  this entry was inspired in part by the concepts of mind-reading and rapid cognition found in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.