No One Can Read Minds, Not Even Yours

By Pamela A. Scott

It happens every day in every business, dozens of times a day. Joe will say “look into this for me” and hand a brochure to Sara. Sara looks at the brochure, wonders what “look into this for me” means, then goes off and does what she thinks Joe wants her to do.

Later, Joe gets upset because whatever Sara did, it wasn’t what Joe wanted her to do.

Joe doesn’t give explicit directions. He doesn’t explain what he is thinking to Sara. And Sara doesn’t ask any questions. Then Joe gets upset. And Sara gets upset because Joe didn’t tell her what he wanted.

Communication is a circular, two-way process. Joe speaks but what he says isn’t what he’s thinking. Much of his side of the conversation is taking place in his head.

Sara hears, but doesn’t ask Joe the questions she needs to ask so that she can do what Joe wants, in his head.

This type of misunderstanding is far more common than people actually understanding each other. And it comes at a price.

Companies lose money because

  • Of rework, having to do a task two or three times to get it right because of unclear specs
  • Of time wasted in meetings where expectations were not clearly stated for participants ahead of time so they could prepare to take action
  • Of running over budget due to unclear directions on who was to do what and when
  • Of clients who left because the PMP they were working with didn’t understand their needs and didn’t ask

How can you remedy the situation? Learn to ask questions.

Try these for getting at what someone isn’t saying.

  • “Tell me how you go about . . .”
  • “What happens next? And then?”
  • “Please say more.”
  • “What is important to you at this point?”
  • “How do you know?”
  • “What makes a difference?”
  • And my favorite: “How can I help?”

Take time to ask questions so that you don’t get caught in the expensive mind-reading trap.


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