Sensational Living®

March-April 2007
© 2007 by Bret S. Beall


Years ago, when I was in healthcare management, I worked with a cluster of executives who mostly worked as individuals. One exception was the leader of the cluster, and his "partner" (she could go by many "labels"). The rest of us could never understand why we seemed to be in the dark regarding overall plans of the cluster. Finally, someone realized, "Those two drive home together every evening, and they drive to work together every morning, and who knows about what happens in between, but you KNOW they are talking about our accounts among themselves, and then forgetting that they haven't shared it with US." Damn! Why didn't I spend more time in mind-reading class?

Sound familiar? Have you ever encountered people who had/have expectations but who refuse or are unable to communicate clearly, so that the only possible solution is mind-reading. Do you also know individuals who display that silly twisted corollary: those who are not communicating BLAME others for not mind-reading. It would be laughable if it weren't so common.

When I was an academic, I wasn't even remotely shocked that mind-reading was expected, or even required, to survive. As a group, academics are notoriously poor communicators with great egos and intellects (I could cite exceptions to all variables, though). The arrogant assumption seems to be "If I know it, then everyone should know it." An exception is when an original idea is being considered, when a slightly more insidious situation can occur: "This is MY idea, and I'm not going to share it." Sometimes academics encounter a downright evil situation (employed by peers, or by students' advisors): "This is YOUR idea, and I'm going to steal it" (this is different from collaboration, which usually involves communication); this is done covertly, so if a peer or student cannot mind-read, s/he'll soon find him/herself scooped and/or sabotaged by his/her peer or advisor.

In the business environment, I once assumed that the financial bottom line was the most important thing, so all of the communication needed to get the job done would be employed. I assumed wrongly. In business, it seems that ego and arrogance are as prevalent as they are in academia, so "power" appears to be the ongoing goal. And "power" can only be obtained if one has something that someone else doesn't have. So, instead of free-flowing communication, we often encounter "secrets," leading to the release of only as much information as a manager or supervisor believes is necessary. I have corporate clients that just cause me to shake my head at times, especially when it is clear that they are trying to hide things from me by assuming that I can't read their minds.

What about interpersonal romantic relationships? I bet you've encountered the statement, "Well s/he SHOULD have known." Yes, it's so ubiquitous that this faulty interpersonal interaction is a comedy classic. Again, it really is more sad than humorous, as it reduces the speaker to nothing more than a parody of a human being. By what means SHOULD someone else have known your expectations? Maybe two twins, with identical ontogenies, can be expected to anticipate one another's expectations, but no one else can legitimately be expected to know what someone else wants without either explicit communication, or mind-reading.

What is the answer? I don't mean to be annoying, but COMMUNICATION is the answer! First, be sure that there truly is an expectation of mind-reading. If not, back off. If you've forgotten instructions or other information, don't blame someone else. But, if there is the expectation of mind-reading, proceed to these solutions:

1. If someone forgets (either accidentally or intentionally) to tell you something, gently remind them of their oversight, and perhaps offer to help them set up a system by which you won't be excluded again.

2. If someone doesn't want to share their idea, have enough confidence in your OWN ideas that you don't need to know others' ideas.

3. If someone steals your idea, call them on it. If you are absolutely confident your idea was stolen, insist on reparations. Do this privately and discreetly at first; if you "don't get no satisfaction," then broaden the range of your communication to relevant individuals like colleagues or HR personnel (this is a tough one that I have experienced personally; the offending party built a wall around himself, and I didn't care enough to knock it down). Pick your battles.

4. If someone expects something from you, and you are sure your memory isn't faulty, calmly explain that you were unaware of the individual's expectations. Then fulfill those expectations (if appropriate).

5. If someone is keeping secrets from you (and if those secrets are relevant to you … if not, it isn't any of your business), be cool and ask them to share; if you have a good working relationship, you might even jokingly say, "I didn't know that my job description included mind-reading," but don't try this in a tense environment. If that doesn't work, explain that you will go to their supervisor, as this secret keeping is negatively impacting your productivity. If that still doesn't work, you can write a letter to put in that individual's personnel/HR file (or if you are dealing with a friendship, you can terminate the friendship as unproductive, unfulfilling, or just downright unfriendly).

Can you identify the common elements to these scenarios? Be gentle. Be calm, cool and collected. Avoid accusation. Avoid cornering someone (ie, give them an "out" to keep from scaring them, and to allow them to preserve their honor and dignity).

Sadly, there is another common element: if someone expects someone else to be a mind-reader, their expectations are unrealistic, or "out of touch." Such individuals are troubled to some degree; their relative toxicity will determine how you approach them. It isn't always easy to correctly diagnose toxicity, but give it a try:

1. Maybe the individual is just so self-absorbed that s/he can't be bothered with anyone else; make your query interesting to him/her, and you can usually get what you want.

2. If someone is secretive, it usually indicates a lack of self-confidence, and it indicates distrust of others. It will take some work, but if you can assure that individual of your trustworthiness, you can gain their confidence, and the need for secrecy will fall away.

3. If someone is intentionally withholding information, in an attempt to "hurt" you, you are dealing with someone motivated by fear, the most dangerous type of individual. If they are afraid of you and your competence, you may just be screwed. But, if you can convince them that you are there to help them look good, to help them shine, to help them be successful, and you really mean it (or can act really well), they will no longer regard you as someone to fear. This "type" of individual doesn't always respond to logic, so I'm not making any guarantees.

Alternatively, you can always work on that mind-reading thing. I joke with clients about this all of the time (usually in the form of suggesting they need to pay me more if they expect me to read their minds). The key, if explicit communication is lacking, is to defuse the situation without placing blame. Have broad enough shoulders to accept what is your responsibility, and then wave off blame assigned by others. Read my previous columns about explicit communication, at http://www.god-dess.com/services_lifestyleJune04.html and http://www.god-dess.com/services_lifestyleSeptember2006.html. Learn to reject expectations that don't "belong" to you because they haven't been communicated explicitly. Develop the confidence to stand up for yourself.

I'm not a counselor, so I'm not going to offer to help you heal. However, I am excellent at helping people develop managerial and organizational skills that will endear them to others, and facilitate better communication. Do you need some of that help? Get in touch at 773.508.9208 or bret@god-dess.com and let's start communicating.