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Can You Trust Your Sixth Sense?

Interview with Nicolas Epley

Can you read the minds of others? If you’re like most people, an extraordinary chunk of your time is spent trying to make sense of other people thoughts, feelings, and actions. But how often do you really get this right?

“One of your brain’s greatest assets is its’ ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better,” explained Professor Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business when I interviewed him recently. “However, as great as your capacity to connect with the minds of others is, it generally doesn’t work quite as well as you may think.”

In fact, Nick and his colleagues have found that regardless of how confident you feel about your ability to read other people’s minds, in most situations, your chances of being right are little more than fifty percent. In other words, your ability to read to correctly make sense of someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and actions is no more accurate than randomly flipping a coin.

For example, studies suggest that while you may have a pretty good sense on average of how smart others in your workplace perceive you to be, you are likely to be clueless about what specific colleagues think of you. 

Unfortunately, research suggests you’re not likely to fare any better in knowing if someone is telling you the truth or not. And if you’re feeling more confident about knowing the minds of those who are close to you, the bad news is that studies have found you are not much more accurate even with your partner.

Results show time and time again that your sixth sense is not perfect,” warned Nick. “And this can create social friction and misunderstanding. Anytime you think you understand somebody better than you actually do, you’re at risk of mismanaging that interpersonal relationship.”

So what can you do to avoid these misunderstandings?

Nick suggests that rather than trying to hone your skills in reading body language or perspective taking – neither of which has been found to really increase your insight or accuracy – having a greater sense of humility about what you don’t know about others’ minds, and investing in strategies to really listen can be much more helpful.

He suggests trying:

  • Asking direct questions – the best way to understand what’s on another person’s mind is just asking them directly. If you really want to increase your understanding of someone’s thoughts, feelings and actions in a situation, approach them in a humble way and ask them direct questions about what’s on their mind at the time when they’re having thoughts that you care about.
  • Listening well – once you’ve asked a direct question you need to put others in a context where they feel comfortable answering you, so you’re able to really listen and understood what they have to say. You can try the speaker/listener technique. Start by asking a question then let the other person respond without interruption. Once they’ve replied reiterate or parrot back what they said to you, including what feelings were expressed so that they can confirm or explain further. In this way, the person knows that they’ve been heard, and you know that you’ve understood them correctly. 
  • Expressing gratitude – while research shows that the prosocial act of expressing gratitude can increase your happiness and strengthen social relationships, however, you may not be doing this as often as you need to. One of the barriers of writing a gratitude letter can be that you’re misunderstanding the positive effects these can have. You can systematically underestimate how surprised recipients will be to get the note, systematically underestimate how positive a mood the recipient will be in when they get the note, and overestimate how awkward the recipient will feel when they get it. By knowing that you can be underestimating the positive impact of compliments, you can be more willing to express more compliments and gratitude.

What questions can you ask to check out your assumptions of others?



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