A year ago, my former manager (now partner) at Accenture, Bogdan Konsur, gave me this book written by Chicago professor Nicholas Epley. After graduating from CBS, I finally had time to read it and found it very interesting and insightful. The book is based on studies of neuroscience and psychology, and is filled with experiments of how the human mind works and how its inherent limitations could cause misunderstandings of others. Here are my key takeaways:
How to be a better “mind reader”? Put less effort on trying to read others’ body language or “putting yourself in their shoes,” this amounts to little more than imagination and guess work, and could exaggerate misunderstandings. Instead, try harder to GET another person’s perspective instead of trying to TAKE it.
Imagining/guessing is easy because it is quick and often works reasonably well based on one’s own mind, stereotypes about others’ mind, and others’ observed actions, but each of these are simplifying heuristics that give imperfect insights. Asking is a slower and harder process therefore a path taken less often, but it is the way you understand people more accurately, and the way you solve their problems more effectively.
Of course GETTING people’s perspective has its own barriers:
- People may not always be honest (e.g. annual performance feedback).
- People sometimes cannot clearly communicate what they mean
- People do not actually understand what they want clearly.
There are ways to alleviate these barriers, such as removing the negative consequence (punishment, reprisal etc.) of being honest and transparent, and rephrase people’s words until you both agree on what they are saying etc. Verbal intelligence is the best predictor of empathic accuracy. Knowing others’ mind requires active/genuine listening and asking the right questions, not just reading and guessing.
In the end, people are not an open book. It is extremely hard to overcome our internal constraints even if we are aware of them. That is just how our brain is hardwired. The best remedy may as well be having a sense of humility, acknowledging that we do not always know, and people are more than what we imagine them to be. This is to have a wise mind.