What do a job candidate interviewing for a role, two colleagues arguing over a slide deck, and a startup founder pitching an idea to an investor have in common? They’re all likely pondering a version of the same question: What’s this other person thinking?
Columbia Business School’s Professor Daniel Ames has long been fascinated by how people perceive — and misperceive — one another. “It’s miraculous how billions of people inhabit the planet and, by and large, most of the time we understand each other. But of course, when we misunderstand, that can have dramatic consequences,” he says.
Much of Ames’ research focuses on the idea of “mind reading,” or how people make inferences about others — rightly or wrongly, and often through the lens of their own experiences. “Mind reading is more of a colloquial term. I’m using it in a slightly cheeky way to refer to what we think other people think, want, and feel,” he explains. “Some people might call that a form of empathy or perspective-taking. Other scholars might describe it as social inference.”
Ames, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Business in CBS’s Management Division, teaches mind-reading skills in courses like Immersive Teamwork and Managerial Negotiations. We spoke with him to learn about findings from his research and how they apply to business.
CBS: Based on your research, what cues do people tend to rely on for mind reading?
Daniel Ames: It’s like a puzzle. I don’t have access to what’s in your head, so I have to guess. To start, I can read your behavior. It’s amazing how much we can understand from a head tilt or an inflection in a sentence. I can take a furrowed brow or an angry look to infer that I’m making you uncomfortable. And sometimes, I’ve got evidence. When someone explicitly says, “I’m angry with you,” I can make a pretty good guess about what’s going on in their head.
A lot of times, though, it’s not clear. And in situations where there’s ambiguity, we often fill in the blanks with what’s going on in our own head. One thing we do in these scenarios is called social projection, which is when we assume others see things the same way we do. I love chocolate, so if I’m giving a new acquaintance a gift, I might assume they love chocolate, too. If I care far more about price than other factors in a negotiation, I might think my counterpart does, too.
Sometimes, we also use stereotypes to fill in the blanks. If someone knows that I’m from Wisconsin, they might have a stereotype of me as a friendly Midwesterner. Or if they know I’ve lived in New York for the past 20-plus years, they might have an impression of me as a pushy New Yorker.
So we have different tools — like behavior, projection, and stereotyping — for trying to read minds, and we switch between them.
CBS: How is this phenomenon applicable within business or professional contexts?
Ames: So many of our choices about how to interact with people — to motivate, persuade, or problem-solve with them — hinge on what we think they think, want, and feel. In negotiations, we’re trying to gauge what matters most or least to a counterpart. In conflict, we’re trying to understand how someone is feeling. In teamwork, we’re trying to anticipate how others will react if we throw out a novel idea. So I think it’s really broadly applicable to life, leadership, and business.
CBS: What’s an example of research you’ve conducted on this topic, and what have you learned about how skilled — or unskilled — people tend to be at reading others?
Ames: With colleagues at CBS, including Abbie Wazlawek, I’ve compared negotiators’ predictions of what their counterparts think of them, including their assertiveness, with the reality of counterparts’ actual impressions. In negotiations, people don’t want to cross the line into being aggressive or obnoxious. But they also don’t want to be too weak. So they’re trying to be like Goldilocks’ porridge — just right. Part of that means making guesses or predictions about how the other party is seeing them, which is sometimes called meta-perception.
For this research, we assessed people in negotiations by asking questions about things like, “How do you think you’re doing in your counterparts’ eyes? How do they see you?” And then we measured what their counterparts actually thought, like, “Do you think this person pushed too hard, too soft, or just right?” It turns out the correlation between those perceptions is really weak. We’re just not great at guessing what people think of us at the negotiating table.
Other parts of my current work look at people’s readiness to share their own ideas, and to critique others’ ideas, in a teamwork setting. How we act in and interpret these situations involves mind reading or misreading. Someone might think a lack of candid criticism of their idea means everyone on the team loves it, missing the fact that people are holding back. Or, someone who’s more diplomatic in their critiques of others’ proposals might be hurt or offended when a freewheeling colleague shoots down their proposal, mistaking their candor for disrespect. When people on a team have different attitudes about idea sharing and critiques, they can easily misread one another, leading to frustration. But good teams find ways to align.
CBS: How can people cultivate better mind-reading skills?
Ames: In negotiation, I urge people to develop what I call an information strategy: thinking about what information they want to uncover — such as a counterpart’s priorities — and how they can do that. This can include testing hypotheses about things like a counterpart’s priorities: Instead of just assuming what someone cares about most or least, good negotiators often draw out information from a counterpart to fill in the picture.
In conflict, it’s often important to maintain a mindset of curiosity at first, no matter how irrational the other person might seem. You need to try to understand their perspective, because you might be missing something. So, as frustrated as you are, and as certain as you are that you are right, you need to push yourself to go through some phase of receptivity and inquiry. It’s not about just reading others’ emotions; it’s about asking questions and being able to receive responses that help you understand the situation without rushing to litigate your own case.
And then in teamwork, one good practice is just to have open conversations about norms for ideas sharing and critiques. This can bring discrepancies to the surface and help you determine how to articulate ideas. Start by asking things like, “What is our obligation to put ideas out into the open? Once ideas are out there, how should we critique them and figure out our collective point of view?” Talking openly about these norms helps teams work their way to some sort of consensus instead of being stuck in their own heads with their own assumptions.
CBS: How do you teach these skills to business school students?
Ames: In both the Immersive Teamwork and Managerial Negotiations courses, students interact with classmates in hands-on activities that can be stressful and challenging. We take pauses after a negotiation or a team activity is over and ask people to report in, often using online surveys.
We ask them to detail, “Here’s what I was thinking at this moment,” or, “Here’s what I thought about my teammate or my negotiation partner.” And then, behind the scenes, we take all that input and compile it into a report. We take out the names so people don’t know who said what. And then we push that feedback out to people.
At the end of day one in the teamwork course, students get these reports. Then we start day two by asking, “What are you going to try to do differently today?” Students have their feedback hot off the press. And now they have a chance to change up their approach. They’re on a new team with a new set of tasks, and they get to try to pivot or course correct.
For many of our students, it’s a powerful — and sometimes intense — experience. For some, it confirms things they’ve been hearing their whole lives, such as, “I talk too much.” But for other people, it can be a real surprise. They had no idea that people thought they were pushing too hard or making others feel excluded.
These exercises can be really transformative. Our courses foster these special laboratories that give students a window they don't always get in everyday life into what the people around them see in their behavior. It’s not a popularity contest; the goal is not to please everyone around you. But this is an important kind of mind reading: to know how people are seeing you, even if you think they’re misperceiving who you are or who you’re trying to be.
Watch CBS Professor Stephan Meier share his insights on the potential competitive advantage that companies can achieve when they embrace flexible, hybrid schedules: