The tremendous power of speculation
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
I could sense his apprehension as he gathered courage.
Everything we had talked about for the last 45 minutes boiled down to the loaded question he was just about to ask his boss. A few weeks earlier, I had taken a call from a manager who we will call Jane. She worked with a subordinate manager who we will call Joe. For some time now, Jane had noticed that Joe had become quiet and distant. Despite talking to him in an effort to understand what was happening, Jane could not work out what was causing this change in character. Although Jane felt she could probably personally abide his new behaviour, it was having a negative impact on his leadership. I agreed to meet them both to see whether Joe needed leadership coaching.
During our meeting, I examined the usual domains: Their degree of consensus in, for example, Joe’s assignment, goals, responsibility, and mandate. But everything seemed to be in order. I did, however, notice that Joe was quite vague in his answers and I had to constantly ask him to clarify what he meant. I also noticed he generally avoided eye-contact and spoke quietly. Slowly I began formulating a hypothesis: That he was possessed by a mind-read.
Mind-reading is a phenomenon where think we know what someone else is thinking and feeling. Perhaps deep inside, we know that we do not know. But still, everything suggests that… evidence points towards… when adding it up… it has to be true, after all.
Mind-reads thrive in vagueness and ambiguity, and often occur due to what someone is not saying or doing. Adding insult to injury, mind-reading almost always contains the element of taking things personally.
In our conversation, Joe referred to an episode where Jane had been critical of something he had done. The statement was hidden in a stream of words and would have been easily missed had I not been listening attentively. But this particular statement, in combination with some other things Joe had said, made me infer he was mind-reading that Jane no longer trusted him. Take a moment and imagine your manager having lost trust in you. Then you know what Joe was going through.
It seemed to me that Jane had given negative feedback pertaining to a certain single event, and that Joe’s head thereafter had started spinning with speculation. He noticed everything Jane said and did that even slightly might corroborate his mind-read, and he was blind to anything that might falsify it. I put my hypothesis into words and asked Joe if I was on to something. He took a deep breath and whispered I was. I asked him to look Jane in the eye and reality-test the mind-read, which he did:
"I have a mind-read that you don’t trust me anymore, is that correct?"
I asked him: ”Do you believe Jane’s answer?”
In truth my question was unnecessary. His relieved smile said it all.
So, what can we learn from this experience? First of all: Mind-reading is something we all do, all the time. It is built into our DNA. However, we would do well to constantly remind ourselves that they are just speculations. And we can consider how important it is to find out if a mind-read is true. In Joe’s case it was obviously very important. In other circumstances we may realise that we might be right or we might be wrong, and leave it at that.
So, how did Joe do, following this conversation? Very well actually, he instantly became his old self and there was no further need for leadership coaching.
This is the second of three posts talking about how we tend to speculate in different time dimensions. Click here if you want to read about this phenomenon in the past and here if you want to read about the future.
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