People are not mind readers: the most important conversation that people never have

We’re all different, and that’s a good thing. The problem is that most of us negate this diversity when working with each other. We focus on what makes us similar so that we can build rapport but, conveniently, work around exploring what makes us different. In my opinion, this avoidance is the mother of most future misunderstandings and conflict.

If we are different, treating others like I would like to be treated doesn’t work (see my early blog post on the limitations of the Golden Rule), I need to understand how you think and behave in order to be able to create an environment where both of us can be comfortably with each other.

Even though most people are aware of this, they still think that with time, they will learn how to work with each other…and that’s true. But who’s got the luxury of time? More and more organizations are now matrixed which means that people work with each other in short term project teams. In these cases, how does time help?

There is another way. A better way. A more difficult way. It’s called setting expectations and the only way to do that is to sit down and talk. Ideally, this discussion needs to happen at the beginning of a working relationship, but it is never too late.

Asking each other what we expect from each other so that we can work together effectively. If people who work together share with each other explicitly what they expect from each other at a behavioural level, it will be a lot easier to meet each other’s expectations. The great thing is that once we’ve asked the other about his/her expectations we can then present our own.

This discussion needs to happen as early as possible in the relationship as it limits the chance for perceived bad faith in future conflicts. Whatever the reason I share with you about why I did not appreciate how you did something, often it be seen as an expectation shared to serve my interest in this given situation. On the opposite, if I share with you, at the beginning of our relationship, how I think information should flow between both if us, it is easier for you to meet that expectation and if conflict arises I can refer back to this original discussion without being perceived as acting out of bad faith.

Then why do people not engage in this conversation more often? It could be for multiple reasons: they don’t want to know what others expect from them as they expect others to adapt to them, they are afraid of hearing expectations that they don’t really want / cannot meet, they are not really aware of what they expect from others or they could just be lacking the language to articulate their own expectations. Whatever the reason(s), and some of them are absolutely legitimate, none of us are mind readers, and most of us don’t have the luxury of time. It’s a lot easier to meet someone else’s expectations once I know what they are and that will reduce the potential for unintentional disrespect and ensuing conflict.

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8 Responses to People are not mind readers: the most important conversation that people never have

  1. This sounds similar to Working Agreements in a team setting. How might you frame this conversation with a colleague? Without structure, I can see this type of conversation being quite difficult.

    • Hi Ted, it does sound very similar to Working Agreements. My point is that most of us know that we need these agreements but hardly any of us engage in this particular discussion.This is a difficult conversation anyway, as it needs us and the other to open up to someone they don’t yet know well and are not sure they can trust. The best way, in my opinion, to structure is relatively simple (not easy): Inquire, Acknowledge, Advocate. Here’s some example of how we can initiate the discussion using Inquiry: ” Hi john, since we are going to be working together closely on project XYZ, I would really like to better understand how you work and what you’d expect from me in order for you to feel that we can work effectively together.” or “Hi Kelly, since the 2 of us will have to work very closely on this project and we are separated by so many time zones, I would like to understand how you see us communicating effectively. Which media, email, phone, voicemail, IM, video do you usually feel most comfortable with? Since we’ll also have to use email pretty often, how do you like your emails? Straightforward, bullet pointed with minimum contextual information or do you prefer a more narrative form that expands context as much as possible?

  2. Alli Polin says:


    You make some great points here! A lot of conflict and headaches could be avoided by talking about our expectations up front. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it needs to until people realize that the relationship isn’t working and they try to mend it by having the conversation (even a little late) but there are often hurt feelings still in place from expectations unspoken and all of the assumptions that were made as a result.

    Looks like you and I were in sync this week on our blogs and what happens when expectations go unrecognized and unspoken.

  3. Hi Alli, thanks for your kind words, much appreciated.

    Btw, would be honoured if you joined me and Kate Nasser for the #peopleskills Twitter chat i am co-hosting with her. Topic: Impact of different perceptions of time and space.

  4. This is a very interesting topic. I have noticed in 20 years of expatriation that expectations gaps are sometimes greater for people supposed to have same cultural backgrounds than for people from other cultures. I guess when it happens. it is because we assume we know people “like us” and we don’t need to talk for clarifying. When living in a foreign country or working in a multicultural team we know there are differences so we may be more inquisitive and talk more to find out what other people think. Have you noticed this phenomenon ?
    I have read an interesting study conducted by Deloitte Australia that observed same paradox. Here their conclusion : “cultural differences caused team members to become more conscious of their own behaviors and to become more flexible and adaptive. Moreover, cultural diversity provided a unique point of connectivity and enjoyment” (I can send you the article)

  5. Hugh Touchai says:

    Reblogged this on Hugh's Business Leadership Blog and commented:
    People are not mind readers. How our communication can be improved by talking about our expectations up front.

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