Mind Reading for Fun and Profit!

Want followers? Want to get more from a negotiation than you go in expecting? Want more loyal relationships with your employees? Want people to be committed to your cause? Want deeper friendships and romantic relationships?

Empathy is the key. It’s the ability to understand what another person is feeling, even if their situation is unlike yours. Empathy is the foundation for relationships, for anticipating others’ needs, for anticipating hot buttons, and for being able to help others. It’s even where great inventions and innovations come from—understanding someone else’s world so thoroughly that you solve problems they didn’t even realize were solvable.

Empathy is a skill, and it can be learned. It’s usually learned face-to-face, but in the wonderful world of technology, we don’t get nearly as much facetime as we once did. But it’s still possible to learn and exercise your empathy skills, explicitly.

We’ll use gender and race as examples, because we can all find someone of different gender and race, and this exercise will help us glimpse into their very different worlds.

In day-to-day empathy, you can even use this with very similar people. Because even people from very similar circumstances can have dramatically different experiences.

Their reality may not be directly knowable

My female friend Vinda told me she never walks home alone after 11 pm. I scoffed. I’d lived in that neighborhood for over ten years. We’d even walked home together. It was perfectly safe… no catcalling, harassment, or anything. Ten years.

I began casually asking women who lived in that neighborhood if they walked home alone. My friend Lauren is a black belt. I asked her, and she looked at me as if I was nuts. “Of course. I’ve always had to do that. All women do that. Why do you ask?”

That’s when I realized that my life as a man is fundamentally different from my friends’ lives as women. When I’m with them, the world is one way. When they’re alone, it’s different. And it isn’t knowable by me, because my very presence changes it.

Find out about their life

Ask them about their life. Let them tell you, and trust the answers. This exercise isn’t about deciding whether you agree with them; this is about learning how they experience their life, from their perspective. Ask them to tell you about what it’s like to be at home, at work. What do they worry about? What do they take for granted? Where do they feel safe? Unsafe? Loved? Ignored? Noticed?

If you have an opportunity to learn about and observe their life directly, take it.

Imagine their life from outside

Once you have an idea of their life, make a mental movie of what their life is, as reported by them or as you’ve seen it first-hand. Things to consider:

  • What is it like to live in their neighborhood? Their apartment? Work in their office? What is their commute like?
  • Who are their friends? What do they do together? What clothes do they wear? What do they do for fun?
  • How do other people treat them on a daily basis?
  • What do they worry about? What are they confident about?

For a short time, I was a “Big Brother” in the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program. My “Little Brother” was an African-American boy. When we would walk down the street together, people would turn and stare. Pretty much everywhere. It was a freaky experience for me, as I’d never experienced that. As a black boy, he experiences that every single time he walks through a predominantly white neighborhood.

I imagined what it’s like to live his life. Where he’s never experienced walking through a group of white people without having them look at you with curiosity or suspicion. Where the only people he can relax with are people of color, with cultural norms, language, hopes, and fears that aren’t the same as white people.

Now, take their perspective, literally

Now that you’ve got the movie of their life, rewind it, and mentally step into it, so you’re looking through their eyes. Roll the movie, and notice what their experience is like. The notice the feelings that you/they have as they live that experience.

In one of my more dramatic examples, I was talking with a friend who had said “Yes” when they meant “No,” and ended up doing drugs they really didn’t want to do. My friend explained how important it was to be liked by the group. And in that situation, from their perspective, they thought saying “No” would make them look scared and foolish in front of their friends.

Succumbing to peer pressure is really not a big issue for me. So I decided to empathize.

I imagined the scene from the outside: a group of friends sitting around in a circle, passing around drug paraphernalia. Everyone’s laughing and joking, and saying, “C’mon, just give it a try. We’re all doing it; it’s fine.” I imagine my friend cringing back, but nevertheless accepting and taking the drug.

Stepping into the movie. I suddenly felt a clenching in my chest. A thought came to mind: “I really don’t want to do this, but if I don’t, I’ll be an outsider. They’ll stop inviting me places. I’ll be all alone.” My friend’s fear, longing, and conflict; it all became real to me in that moment.

Your results will vary; that’s a good thing!

Empathy is individual. My Little Brother’s experience may not apply to all black people. Maybe just black men. Or maybe just him. And maybe my imagination of what it’s like to have all eyes watching distrustfully is nothing like the way he experiences it. You can always describe your experience and ask. With practice, you’ll get better at it. We all have the ability to feel empathy Your brain is built to make this work.

Give it a shot

There are a lot of chances to practice this empathy technique. Start with friends and family members, people you already know well. Then branch out. Try someone of a different race or religion. Try someone of a different race or gender. Try someone on the opposite side of a political issue. Try someone of a very different socioeconomic class.

This will be a stretch. You’ll need to learn something about the other person’s situation in order to gain the insight. While you can still get a surprising amount of benefit by simply constructing your own idea of what their life is like, you’ll get the most by seeking out the other person, asking questions, and listening. You won’t be listening to engage or react, however, but to learn. And to trust that, at least during this exercise, they’re reporting their real experience to you.

Empathy is the foundation for human relationships. It’s what lets us build bridges to people who aren’t like us, and even to people who are. Take the time to build your empathy muscles explicitly.

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

In this episode of Business Explained, I interview Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More And Change The Way You Lead Forever.” We discuss how to use some truly powerful coaching questions to boost your ability to help others.

How would you know if you’re evil?

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to confront our fears…

The Evil Queen stood in the doorway. The terrifying thing wasn’t the smoke rising from her hair, the sinister red glow emanating from her fingertips, or the half-eaten apple rolling on the ground beside the body of Snow White in the background; it was the look of naked vulnerability on her normally regal face. The source? The crumpled paper clutched in her right hand: the results of her 360-degree evaluation.

The Evil Queen doesn’t think of herself as evil. Neither does the Tasteless In-Law. They may always show up with the best of intentions, but they just don’t seem to “get” that bringing fireworks for the kids’ birthdays is just awkward. Or how about that yearly impression at the Thanksgiving dinner table that, in the words of Avenue Q, is “just a little bit racist?” They can’t fathom that some things are just … inappropriate.

Unfortunately, there are times in our lives where we’re probably the ones with cringe-worthy conversation, only everyone’s too polite to tell us. After all, those fireworks seemed like a perfectly appropriate gift for little 7-year-old Sydney. There’s one way to know if we’re That Inappropriate Person, however, and it’s the scariest thing we can do: ask.

Approach a friend, family member, or colleague. Simple ask, “I want to be the best friend possible. Can you tell me how I’m doing? Please be honest. What can I do better?” If they have hard feedback to hear, it’s probably just as hard for them to say, so take it well! Write it down, smile, and say “Thank you.”

Realize that other people see us differently than we see ourselves. You may think you’re a Superhero fighting for Good, but the people around you find you a bit more of a Monarch of Evil. By finding and closing the gap, you can bring yourself closer to making the outside you match the Superhero You.

So get moving! Use the answers! Read over the list of feedback. Choose one thing to change, and for 90 days, change that one thing. Then when you’ve mastered it, go on to the next thing (trying to accomplish all the goals on the list at once is just too much). Then ask again, to find out if you’ve made the change.

This even works for the Evil Queen. She’s learning. She’s decided to lay off the poison apples and put her efforts into doing good deeds, like finding homes for orphans. She says there’s a gingerbread house just beyond the stream that is happy to take as many orphans as she can send over. It isn’t perfect, but it’s progress.

The Right Conversation will Get You What You Want

If you want to change your life, how do you do it? I used to think it was hard. Then I realized that most of the opportunities in life have come through one simple activity: talking to people…about stuff. Who you talk to, and what you talk about, ends up building your reputation, and gets people thinking of you in ways that lead to new opportunities.

You don’t always have the power to talk to the right people, but you always have the power to talk about the stuff you think is important. Once you start talking about what you care about, you quickly find the other people who care, too.

People Will Self-Select

Start by changing the conversation with your current group of friends and colleagues. They’ll make it clear really quickly if they’re the wrong audience.

A mid-50s postal clerk called for career coaching. She’s close to retirement. In her spare time, she’s designed a low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing unit she believes could revolutionize third world housing. Her co-workers all pooh-pooh her idea: “You should realize you’re just a postal clerk with delusions of grandeur. At your age, you should just be thinking about retirement.”

Those weren’t the people to talk to. Talking to me was a good next step. I don’t have third-world housing connections, but I know people who do and can refer her. She changed her conversation and is already getting closer to people who can help realize her dream.

Jump on Opportunities

Be on the looking during the conversation, and pounce on opportunities as they arise. Last year, I was going through career angst. The only things that seemed exciting: theater and saving the world. Sadly, theater is tough to make pay, and there weren’t any save-the-world job openings on Craigslist.

I was talking with my friend Jason about my desire to save the world. Lo and behold, he had just been tasked with the job of … creating a conference to save the world! Hosted by MIT, the SOLVE conference would convene movers and shakers, technologists and policy makers, and be about initiating real action to solve world problems.

I immediately asked to get involved. I presented my ideas to the SOLVE team, and was given an invitation as an attendee to SOLVE 1.0. Will SOLVE be the right vehicle for me? Who knows. But one way or another, it introduces me to a new community to talk to, who share my concerns and aspirations. And therein lies opportunity.

Change Your Life

Now it’s your turn to change your life by talking to people … about stuff:

  1. What change do you want to make in your life?
  2. When you’ve made the change, who will you be talking to? About what?
  3. If you can reach those people directly, pick up the phone.
  4. Otherwise, start having the right conversations, and let people guide you to the right audience.
  5. If you run out of people and still haven’t found your tribe, try Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.

Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds

The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.

All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.

A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.

Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.

So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.