I recently listened to an interview with Nicholas Epley, the author of Mindwise, How We Understand What Others Feel, Think and Want. He is an experimental psychologist who believes that “your brain’s greatest skill is its ability to think about the minds of others in order to understand them better.” He described an experiment conducted at the Max Plantz Institute in Germany which compared the ability to solve problems by 105 two year old children to 106 adult chimpanzees. Some abilities were physical such as the ability to track where an item was placed. The toddlers and chimpanzees had similar capacities for these physical skills. But there was another set of tests which looked at social skills such as the ability to track someone else’s gaze to determine what they wanted. In those skills, the toddlers were far superior. Epley stated that our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others is what has allowed us to work together so successfully as a species
He described a number of problems with our ability to understand others. One is overconfidence. Even though our social skills are far superior than an adult chimpanzee, we still make mistakes because we believe we know others’ minds better than we actually do. Our egocentrism skews our opinion of others’ thoughts because we rely too much on what is happening inside our own brains to predict what is in the minds of others.
After listening to this interview, I started to think about our work as conflict professionals. When I think Back to when I have been in a conflict with someone else, I am fairly certain my ability to discern what is in the mind of the person I am in conflict with is diminished. My egocentrism is in the forefront and my interpretation of what the other person is thinking is distorted. I imagine all sorts of things about what they “must have been thinking.” Even if the other person tells me that isn’t what they are thinking, I’m not inclined to believe them. It’s as if we are speaking different languages – the one inside my head and another one inside theirs. My social skills are more at the level of the adult chimpanzee.
It can be helpful at such times to have someone outside the conflict provide another possibility – “this is what I thought he was saying or thinking.” In a sense, they are my interpreter who describes what was going on inside the other’s mind. When we are working as conflict professionals, one of our tools is the Loop of Understanding – to demonstrate to a speaker that we have understood what they intended to communicate. One of the side benefits of looping is that we may also be serving as the interpreter for the other person in the conflict. As they listen to us loop, they can reevaluate whether their belief about what was going on in the other’s mind was accurate or not. We don’t want to push them to do that (“now do you understand what he was saying?”), but rather our attempt to understand the other may be a window for them to consider a different interpretation if they are open to that. When that happens, there can be a sense of relief, that we have restored one of greatest skills – our ability to understand what is going on in the mind of others.