You hold a pair of nines in your weekly poker game. As you go around the table, everyone else folds. It’s down to you and a new player who has just joined the game. You lack knowledge about his style of play, and he doesn’t provide clues through body language. So is he bluffing when he ups the ante?
With nothing else to go on, most card sharks — and anyone else involved in situations involving an opponent — seem to resort to mind reading, says Elke U. Weber, a Chazen Senior Scholar who cowrote “Mind-Reading in Strategic Interaction” with fellow Columbia Business School professor Daniel R. Ames and London Business School professor Xi Zou.
The researchers say that negotiators with insufficient information instinctively fall back on two shortcuts: They either project their own mindset — for example, how they would act in their opponent’s shoes — or impose stereotypes — i.e., that psychology majors are more trustworthy than MBA students, or that women are less competitive than men.
“The more similarities an individual sees with his counterpart, the more likely he is to project,” says Ames. The reverse is also true: if your partner is nothing like you, you’re likely to grab for stereotypes.
These shortcuts can lead to quick and effective predictions about what someone else is thinking, but they can also lead to trouble. The professors, both of whom teach courses in negotiation, suggest steps to improve your mind reading skills and steer an opponent, who’s also trying to read your mind, toward your desired outcome.
1. Do some reconnaissance. Even if your opponent hasn’t been forthcoming, you may find past behavior telling.
Example: Did researching your counterpart’s previous mergers reveal contentious outcomes? Is the other side defending an inordinate number of lawsuits? “If you perceive repetitive acts of hostility,” says Weber, “it’s likely the other side won’t be willing to explore integrative solutions that make you both better off.”
2. Examine the source of your judgments. “It’s a reality check,” says Weber. “Step back and ask yourself what you are basing your expectations about your counterpart on,” she says, noting that mind reading is often intuitive and performed subconsciously. “If it’s stereotyping, does your opponent really fit the pattern? If it’s projection, are you hearing what you expect to hear?”
Example: If you’re from a Western culture and your opponent is Asian, you may expect that person to be indirect and hesitant to disagree. As a result, you may be stating your position in vague and uncertain terms, even if your opponent would prefer that you be more forthright.
3. Try to determine your opponent’s mind reading method. If the other side is drawing wrong conclusions, “look for ways to signal you’re not part of a stereotype, ” says Weber.
Example: If you fear they are stereotyping you by gender (“women are conciliatory”), emphasize another aspect of your character — that you are a banker (“bankers are ruthless”).
4. Be willing to switch your behavior. If you realize your assumptions are leading you astray, adopt another form of mind reading — or try to remain neutral. If your opponent presents evidence, forego mind reading altogether and base conclusions on what you’ve learned.
Example: You begin negotiations with a supplier by offering a cooperative action, such as asking for concessions other than a price cut. If your opponent refuses, switch to a defensive action in the next round and protect yourself with an equally competitive action (e.g., demanding a price cut).
5. Test your hypothesis rather than confirm it. Confront people with what you’re expecting, especially if you feel either of you may be using a counterproductive stereotype. Both of you may be surprised that you are working with faulty assumptions.
Example: “Look for evidence that runs counter to your assumptions,” says Ames. “If you expect the market will grow, ask instead why the market will likely shrink.”
6. Lay your cards on the table. “A case can be made for transparency,” says Weber. “Rather than play games, just tell your opponent what you want. You’re asking the other side to move beyond stereotyping or projection and move more toward mutual trust.”