Cultivating the Sixth Sense for HR

There’s no magic to mind reading; it’s hard work to hone the social skills you were born with

By Christina Folz Jul 1, 2015
Nicholas Epley

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Photo by John R. Anderson

LAS VEGAS—If only it were as easy as gazing into a crystal ball. Knowing what others are thinking is key to many issues that HR professionals address, whether they’re assessing engagement, job satisfaction or the motives behind people’s decisions.

But many of the purported methods for gaining that insight—such as interpreting body language, imagining yourself in others’ shoes or studying micro-expressions—simply aren’t backed up by solid data, said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Epley delivered a Masters Series session at the Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition on June 30, 2015.

“Be wary of gimmicks,” he said. “There’s no easy road to understanding another person.” That’s no surprise considering the stunning complexity of the human brain, which has 100 billion nerve cells, each of which is connected to other neurons through 10,000 synapses.

The good news is that our brains are wired for social understanding. “Everybody in this room is capable of reading minds,” said Epley, author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want (Knopf Doubleday, 2014). “Everyone … is a psychologist by birth.” We can start by paying attention to others around us. “If you don’t engage with the minds of others, you may fail to recognize a mind that’s right in front of your eyes.”

What Gets in the Way

One thing that prevents people from reaching their full mind-reading potential is overconfidence. In experiments where one member of a married couple was asked to predict how the other would answer a series of questions related to his or her feelings and preferences, people were able to answer questions about their spouse more accurately than questions about a stranger—but not much more. The effect was actually quite subtle.

But when the same people were asked how well they thought they had done in guessing their spouse’s responses, they believed they had done substantially better. “The overconfidence effect is huge,” Epley said. “The problem with social life is not incompetence … it’s hubris.”

Another issue is what Epley calls “dehumanization.” Most people think of that term as something that happens in dire circumstances, such as when an ethnic or minority group is degraded during wartime or denied fundamental civil rights. But it occurs all the time in more pervasive ways.

For example, studies show that people tend to believe that they experience emotions more strongly than others and that their rationale for taking certain actions is more valid and rooted in reason than the rationales of others. “There’s only one mind you have a direct connection to, and that is your own,” Epley said. Since we can’t see or feel what others are thinking, people distance themselves from others’ humanity. “It doesn’t make logical sense, but it makes a lot of psychological sense.”

By the same token, people have a hard time judging how they are evaluated by others. “Nobody else knows as much about you as you do,” Epley said. People view themselves through the eyes of an expert—one who can always find small imperfections about themselves that others won’t see. “If I’m looking at myself through a different lens than you are, we’re going to see different things,” he said.

The Road to Understanding

To understand others better, here’s what Epley recommends:

Cut confidence in half. Being humble when interacting with others enables insight. Epley says it also helps for people to, for lack of a better term, get over themselves. Research validates that others don’t care about what an individual is doing nearly as much as that person perceives they do.

Speak your mind. What’s in people’s minds comes out their mouths when they are asked questions directly, openly and honestly. In fact, one study showed that recruiters at Fortune 500 companies judged candidates to have higher intellects when the recruiters heard what candidates had to say verbally vs. reading the same information in writing. And they were more interested in hiring them. “A person’s voice reveals the presence of a humanlike mind,” Epley said, pointing out that the move toward e-mail interaction is inherently problematic in this regard.

Be painfully clear. Use the speaker/listener technique, which is often utilized in couples therapy. It involves asking people directly what’s on their mind, listening carefully, reiterating clearly and asking for confirmation that you got it right.

Indeed, Epley found in his study of married couples that when an individual talked with his or her spouse about the spouse’s feelings before being questioned about those feelings, the accuracy of the responses increased substantially.

In other words, the best way to discover what is on someone’s mind is pretty simple: Ask them.

Christina Folz is editor of HR Magazine.


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