How good are you at telepathy and mind reading at work?
No, this is not about a new line in courses and workshops. This article is based on the many times that I have coached managers and discussed a team member’s poor performance. I ask, "have you actually discussed this with them?". They reply, "well, not in so many words" or "well, I’ve hinted at it or alluded to it but I didn't want to make a difficult situation worse/I don't want to upset them". Therefore, if we were good at telepathy and mind reading it would come in very useful at work (and in most families) as it is often so difficult to figure out what our colleagues or clients are really thinking, feeling or trying to say to us.
What stops us from communicating openly?
We so often fear those ‘difficult’ conversations going wrong that we leave things unsaid. Often until they lead to bigger issues, bigger performance management or even disciplinary conversations. But what do we fear?
- Upsetting or offending the other person.
- The person getting angry, taking things the wrong way – and in some organisations, staff are quick to put in grievances when a manager is trying to manage their performance. And, if nobody in the past has discussed it with them, it can come as a shock to suddenly get some feedback.
- Undermining or ruining a good working relationship.
- Making a bad situation worse.
When have you been too frightened to have that ‘difficult’ conversation with someone? When have you been left wondering what someone is really trying to tell you?
"Each person’s life is lived by a series of conversations." Deborah Tannen
Having those ‘difficult’ conversations
One of my guiding principles is ‘practising what I preach’, which can make for tough going sometimes as I feel I cannot run away from issues. Recently, working with a new colleague, I started to feel that perhaps something was not quite right. Something in their behaviour towards me, the tone of a couple of emails and even the odd phrase meant that I was concerned that something was going wrong. I did ponder what to do for some time and then wrote him an email (we work remotely and were both very busy) sharing my concerns and saying overtly if "I had peed him off I’d like to know, so do we need to speak?". A week later the reply was, "no, everything is fine" but a paragraph in his email about the project made me think it still wasn't really fine.
I was concerned not to lose this new colleague and I thought we had rapport, so I decided that whatever the outcome I needed to pursue this. We had a Skype conversation about a client which went well and I decided to bring this up again, and asked, "are things really OK?". At which point he brought up two points, which without being a mind reader I would never have known! We discussed it adult to adult and I said, please in future do discuss any concerns with me, I am always happy to speak.
This experience, along with coaching a CEO recently and having a conversation about one of her director’s behaviour, and how she might be falling into the trap of trying to mind read what was actually going on, I thought this would be a good topic as it happens more often than we might realise.
"Often we go through an entire conversation – or indeed an entire relationship – without ever realising that each of us is paying attention to different things, that our views are based on different information." Douglas Stone
How do you know you are mind reading?
This might sound like a ridiculous question to ask, as surely we know. However, it is so easy to get caught up in our own thinking that we do not realise when we are either projecting our own stuff onto someone else, or misinterpreting someone’s behaviour, what they say or even facial expressions. Ask yourself the following - how do you react when:
- Someone frowns in a meeting – do you assume they disagree with you or are being negative, rather than ask them a question and check it out? It might be they are just concentrating hard on what you are saying?
- Someone’s tone of voice is a bit harsh or and you assume they are angry with you, rather than that they might just be feeling under pressure?
- Someone says a phrase or a word and it triggers stuff from your past and you suddenly end up in a less than resourceful state? When they might have just been stating a fact, not making a judgement. For example, "these sales figures are disappointing".
How can you stop mind reading and telepathy and start having those so called ‘difficult’ conversations?
Now don't get me wrong, dealing with conflict is not something that comes naturally to me. It is something I have learned how to handle over the years, which helps me when I am coaching and training others in conflict management and having those ‘difficult’ conversations. If you find yourself either on the end of such a challenging conversation, where mind reading or telepathy has been going on and you need to have a potentially difficult conversation, it is important to do the following to make sure it is as constructive and productive as possible:
- Dampen down your brain’s threat response - whether you are initiating or on the receiving end of this kind of conversation, it is likely to trigger your brain’s threat response, which if you don't take action to dampen it down will impact on your ability to listen, and have a rational conversation.
- Ask questions – we too often jump to conclusions, project our own stuff onto others and try and mind read, rather than simply ask questions to seek to understand where they are coming from. This is a lot easier to do, if you have dealt with your threat response first of all.
- Show that you are listening - summarise or reflect back what you have heard, check out you understand what they are saying, ask questions based on what they have said.
- Calmly make your points – calmly, clearly and concisely say what you need to say and ask questions to check they have understood.
- Step into their shoes - it can be useful even before going into this kind of interaction to step into their shoes, where are they coming from? Which is different from mind reading.
- Aim for win-win outcome - agree to disagree or go away and think about things and continue the conversations once both have had time to think.