Interpreting Behaviour: Are You Good at It?
When it comes to interpreting behaviour, are you a mind reader?
Do you have that rare ability to know precisely what another person is thinking?
Do you have confidence in the certainty of your ability to determine why others do what they do?
The correct answer to these questions is a resounding, no. Now let's see if any of the following apply to you.
You left a voicemail for your friend. She did not return your call. She is mad at you.
Your colleague at work regularly borrows your stapler and never returns it. He does this just to tick you off.
You hear a workmate letting out a deep sigh. He is stressed out.
If you are like so many of us, you have practiced mind-reading with the firm belief that you are absolutely correct.
But are you?
Let's examine each of the above examples and separate fact from fiction.
There are two facts in the first statement. You left a voicemail for your friend and your friend did not return the call. That's all you know.
The rest of the statement is pure conjecture.
In the second example, the only facts are your colleague borrows your stapler and does not return it. There are no other facts. You have no idea why he does this.
The only fact in the third example is that your workmate sighed. That's all you can possibly know.
Any time we engage in mind-reading, we run the risk of being absolutely wrong and taking actions that may well produce negative consequences regardless of how well intentioned we may be.
Mark Twain told us, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
I frequently engage with clients who are extremely angry, frustrated, depressed or confused because they have applied meaning to another’s actions without verifying accuracy.
That's not to say that there are never times when our assessments (wild guesses) are not completely correct. It's just that we can never know absolutely without asking and, as you know, what we believe to be true, drives what we do. This means when we attach certainty to what is at best uncertain information, we set ourselves up for heading off in the wrong direction.
I have seen relationships irreparably damaged, sales opportunities wiped out, businesses falsely maligned and reputations severely bruised all because of false assumptions and fact-free speculation.
I have often heard the reason for bad situations attributed to comments like “they don't care,” “it doesn't matter to them” and “they think they're…”
The truth is mind-reading is an unavailable skill. We just can't do it no matter how strongly we convince ourselves otherwise. It makes interpreting behaviour pretty difficult for most of us.
There is a solution: ask. If you think you know why someone does something, the best way to confirm your suspicion is to ask them.
You may not get a true answer, but you can only work with what you have.
Some of us turn to others to ask unanswerable questions. “Why do you think she…?” There's only one person who knows the correct answer.
And that person isn’t you.
You wouldn’t want other people to falsely attribute meaning to your behaviour, would you?
Let’s make a habit of meeting like this.