While some of us just seem to “get” what others are thinking and feeling, or the real message behind what’s said, others can feel a little clueless. That has to do with an actual skill that cognitive scientists call Theory of Mind
. Like most skills, if you work at it, you can improve.
Why it matters
Theory of Mind is all about how we ascribe mental states (emotions, desires, beliefs, knowledge) to ourselves and others and how we use those insights to explain and predict behaviors. It’s a form of cognitive empathy
that helps us put our own thoughts and assumptions aside for a moment and consider someone else’s perspective.
It would be easy to argue that other people should just tell us what they’re thinking and feeling so we don’t have to guess, but you may have noticed that’s not always how the world works.
Understanding other people is a critical life skill, as well as a professional competency. When you’re able to intuit what someone else might be thinking or feeling, it can help you avoid conflict, solve disagreements more effectively when they arise, and build strong relationships.
Developing cognitive empathy can even help you better identify your own mental states and prompt self-introspection.
A mile in your shoes
While we can never know for sure what’s in someone else’s head or heart — and our own biases can take us way off track — becoming better at reading people and situations is a skill you can improve by starting with one of the most basic tenets of human interaction: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
As we develop Theory of Mind skills, even as young children, we learn that:
Build the skill
- The reasons why someone might want something differ from person to person.
- People can hold different beliefs about the same situation.
- It’s possible for people not to comprehend something that’s actually true.
- People can hold false beliefs about the world.
- We sometimes hide our emotions or act one way when we really feel another way.
While your basic ability to “read” other people begins to develop as early as 15 months of age, we can refine the skill across our lifetimes. These are some of the building blocks.
- Pay attention to other people. Consciously and selectively deciding to pay attention to something or someone increases insights dramatically. Interestingly, when you and another person pay joint attention to something, you start to process their mental state as well as your own.
- Understand that people act with intention. Our actions are goal-directed and stem from our own beliefs and desires. Understanding that fundamental fact can help you look beyond a puzzling or annoying behavior to consider the motivation behind it. People’s actions are based on what they want to make happen and what they think is going to happen.
- Consider someone’s knowledge base. We all behave based on the information and experiences currently available to us. When evaluating someone else’s actions, you might also consider whether they have the same information you have. For example, if a team member is not responding as quickly as you would like, consider whether she understands the full implications of the project and why speed is so critical. Likewise, you could lack information about the obstacles she’s facing.
- Explore hidden feelings. When we understand that people don’t always show their real emotions, it can help us dig deeper to find the “real” issue. For example, we often mask a sense of rejection or feelings of vulnerability with anger. Or might agree to a colleague’s proposed plan rather than share our own idea out of a fear of failure or lack of confidence, rather than respect. When someone behaves in ways that seem confusing to you, take a moment to explore the larger situation and whether it’s possible one emotion is masking another.
This is also an extremely helpful practice to engage in with yourself. If you’ve just over-reacted to a work challenge or feedback from your boss, sit quietly or take a walk and ask yourself probing questions about what you’re really feeling. That can help you address the core issue rather than chase down distractions.
- Consider cultural differences. While people across the globe develop basic Theory of Mind skills over a fairly predictable path as children, cultures place different values on different emotions and modes of behavior. In our diverse workplaces, it’s important to explore whether an employee’s reluctance to speak up, preference to work alone or flexible approach to deadlines has a cultural element to it you may need to recognize to understand them better.
Strengthening your ability to “read” others (and yourself) will help you build empathy, understanding and a greater appreciation for diverse perspectives. The payoff is likely to be decreased conflict, fuller participation among team members and better decision making.