Reality Check: Caution! Mindreading While Listening

When doing an important task, it works best if you concentrate fully on that one task while you are doing it. For example, you and I both know better than to text while driving.
Driving is an important task, and it deserves concentration. So when we’re driving, it’s also helpful if we choose to refrain from fiddling with the radio, fixing our hair, or gazing dreamily at the ocean.
Just because we know that something is helpful doesn’t mean that we always do it, though, does it?
Driving isn’t the only important task that some of us try to perform while devoting less than our full attention. Consider the practice of “listening while mind-reading.” Listening may not seem to demand the same level of attention as driving, but failure to listen could still be quite destructive, couldn’t it?
When Sam was called into Mary’s office, he was certain that he already knew what the conversation was going to be about.
There had been a miscommunication about an important customer’s request. The result was that Sam had shown up at the customer’s location without the necessary supplies, meaning that the trip was a write-off. The customer is now unhappy, the job is delayed, and the company has lost money because of it.
Mary starts the conversation with, “I understand that there was a problem yesterday. Would you tell me about it?”
However, Sam is already in mindreading mode. Even though Mary is asking for his input, what Sam believes she’s really thinking is, “I’ve already decided; I know it was your fault, and I am going to make you pay one way or another.”
How Sam responds to Mary’s question could have a lot of influence over how the two of them get along from now on, won’t it?
Sam could respond with facts. “Here’s what happened: I got a text to go to the job; it didn’t say exactly what I’d be doing, I figured it would be the same thing I’d done for this customer before, so that’s how I chose what supplies to bring. Maybe I should have called ahead to be sure, but I think that anybody else would have made the same mistake.”
Those are the facts. It’s a reasonably neutral response.
What if, instead of that neutral response, Sam answers what he thinks Mary is thinking?
“It’s not my fault that I didn’t know what supplies to take. If you’d have your job calls dispatched in any sensible way, we wouldn’t have these mix-ups. I don’t know how you think you can run a business this way, and I’m not taking the blame for this.”
That sounds a little more defensive, angry, and blaming, doesn’t it? Further, rather than providing useful information to Mary, it’s responding to Sam’s assumption—that Mary is accusing him. And Sam knows he’s being accused because…he’s a mindreader!
It’s easy to mislead ourselves into believing that we have a greater talent for mindreading than we actually do. Have you ever finished someone’s sentences for them? If so, are you certain that’s what they were really thinking?
In any conversation, if I am not really listening to what you say, but instead assume that I already know what you’re thinking, then I’ve effectively removed you from the interaction. Convenient? Yes. Accurate? Not necessarily!
If we genuinely want to communicate, what might we do? One suggestion is to prioritize listening as an important task. Consider listening, just like driving, as being worthy of our full concentration.
Dismiss the assumptions that you already know what’s in the head of the other person, and actually hear what they are saying. It’ll make the conversation more interesting, and it might even be informative!
Do you mindread when listening? Do you find it helpful or unhelpful?

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