Undertand Others

What others really think

Social awareness according to science journalist Daniel Goleman is one of the four domains of emotional intelligence. Besides the competencies of organisational awareness and service orientation, empathy is the one on the forefront. Understanding others certainly helps to build trusting relationships, but is empathy the magic skill to know what others really think?

Social Awareness refers to how people handle relationships and awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns.

Daniel Goleman, www.danielGoleman.info

Imagine you are in a restaurant witnessing an issue with the order at the table next to you. Holding a plate with a juicy steak and fries, a young waitress is insisting that the five guests on the table had ordered this dish along with the other main courses already served. However, the guests already eating their dinners assert that they haven’t asked for that additional steak. The waitress standing there for a few long seconds and eventually retreated with the plate still in her hand.

What do you make of this situation? Take a minute to let your mind wonder? What assumptions do you make?

New Zealand, South Island – Photo: Sandy SQ

Do you wonder whether the waitress has made a mistake and was now afraid of her boss? Or have the people on that table actually ordered that additional steak and then decided not to take it after all? Or maybe, the waitress had written down a wrong number of main courses and when she confirmed the food with the order the guests had not listened carefully to correct the error. There are indeed numerous possibilities. But however way you put it it will remain a mystery since you have no way to find out for sure. You have only pictured it. You weren’t there.

Your brain though will make up a story about it that would be closely related to your point of reference. The mind adds meaning to the facts based on what we notice and what we know. Social science studies have identified a number of cognitive biases that shape the way we experience the world. The confirmation bias for example have us look for or notice evidence to confirm our beliefs. In other words if you belief you are successful you are more likely to notice your achievements. On the other side if you believe that you have to work hard to accomplish anything in life you most likely have a lot of examples proving this belief.

You add context and meaning to what you experience and label it as good or bad judging by how the thought makes you feel. This is not necessarily a bad thing because human beings are meaning-making machines.

Tony Fahkry, Self-empowerment Author, Expert Speaker and Coach
The Voice In Your Head Is Not Who You Really Are. You Are The One Who Observes It – medium.com

The situation above is told from an outsider’s point of view. If it were told from the guest’s perspectives or from the waitress herself it most likely would have you think differently about it. Depending on the context, your own experiences and the availability of information. There are many mental shortcuts our mind keeps using to make sense of the world in a very efficient way. When you think about the situation above you most likely remember your last time in a restaurant and potentially an encounter with a server. Or you yourself have been a server at some point in your life and associate the situation with your own experience. And based on what is called availability heuristic we do judge a situation based on the thoughts or facts that are readily available.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires
Photo: Sandy SQ

Now, the situation above happened recently when I met with former study colleagues from the organisational behaviour diploma. We met after work and our order consisted of a starter for one, 2 of us ordered a starter and a main course, another one ordered two starters and I had ordered a main course. As you can see it was not the most straight forward order. When the main course arrived they brought one plate too much which we declined to take. Later, the young waitress came back with the additional main course in her hand telling us that she knows for sure that we have ordered four main courses. We told her that we hadn’t and after what felt like an eternity she left the table. Having caught up on how we had integrated what we have learned during our behavioural diploma course we started to reflect the situation. So we tried to understand what made the server look so desperate to have us take a meal that we haven’t ordered. Our ideas were based on own experiences of what may caused the waitress’ behaviour. There was also a notion to assess our own behaviour. While we felt empathy for the her and the situation there was nothing really we could have done. Why would we have ordered a meal that we wouldn’t take after all?

Monumento Nacional Wilcahuain Ruin, Peru
Photo: Sandy SQ

I am almost certain that you would have thought differently about the situation if I would have presented it initially from my point of view. The different more subjective context would have triggered different associations. It can be assumed that based on cognitive biases we often fall short of seeing the full picture before we judge a situation. Coming back to the title of this article What others really think; I argue that we will never know for sure what other people think. Even though empathy can help, the best ways to find out what people truly think is asking them. What do they really want? What does motivate them? What is important to them? What do they dislike? Only then we can truly gain an understanding of the other person, and this too is bound to change over time.

Back in the restaurant, we settled with the notion of having done the right thing and that we felt for the waitress assuming that there must have been some circumstances that had her behaving the way she did. Some time later, the waitress came to our table apologising. She acknowledged the fact that she should herself have handled the situation better. The five of us were delighted to see the courage of the young woman and we felt better for her and ourselves that the somewhat awkward situation earlier had dissolved so peacefully. Yet, we will never know what the waitress really thought of us and whether the apology came from her or being an order from her boss. But we learned something too: In our discussion about the situation we never considered the possibility for the waitress to admit her mistake.

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References and further reading about emotional intelligence and biases:

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