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VOL. 126 | NO. 97 | Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Susan Drake

Sixth Sense Reveals Motives

Susan Drake

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One of my favorite miscommunication stories occurred when my boss was presenting a strategic plan to the executive committee. Ned, one of the key reviewers, sat rolling his eyes throughout, making my boss very concerned about any forthcoming approval.

After the meeting, he confided to another committee member that he was disturbed by Ned’s obvious dissatisfaction with the plan. “Oh, he wasn’t displeased,” the executive explained. “His contact lens had scratched his eyeball and he left the meeting and went directly to the eye doctor.”

How often do we make assumptions about what people are thinking based on false cues? What signals can we trust? And how can we correctly interpret all the unique body language, voice inflections, intonations and word choices of a vast array of people? It’s not a simple science and it’s complicated by the fact that not everyone is up front in saying what they truly believe.

Books galore inform us about body language and all that jazz, and I strongly suggest these for the basics. But understanding people and functioning in an organization includes other factors that I believe count just as much as “book learning.” So let’s “attend” a meeting and try to read the landscape.

First, consider what kind of culture you’re working in. Is it one of trust? If so, people may feel confident expressing honest opinions in constructive ways. If your environment is especially political, openness may not be in play. Listen to the words but trust the actions.

Second, look at history. Be a student of the people you work with and consider how they’ve behaved in other situations. Were they genuine? Calculating? This will tell you what to expect.

Third, who is present? Power players can inhibit discussion. After all, don’t we all want to be perceived favorably by the influencers in the group? If there’s a controversial subject on the table, people tend to be more circumspect in revealing their true thoughts.

Finally, the most important factor: your gut. We all have a sixth sense that can absolutely detect people’s motivations if we just listen closely to our own intuition. It’s almost like an electrical current running through a room that lets you literally feel the static, discern people’s comfort or discomfort, and watch the shifting tide of feelings. More than any other tool you have, your instinct can be counted on to tell you the truth. It’s just a matter of tuning in and trusting what you feel. Yes, there have been times that I’ve discounted what my gut was telling me, and I’ve usually looked back and said, “Boy, I should’ve listened to my gut.”

Use the scientific tools at your disposal, exercise your powers of observation, assess the situation – and then, trust your gut. It’s like arthritis before rain: You won’t find a truer barometer of the weather.

Susan Drake is president of Spellbinders Internal and External Marketing. Contact her at susand@spellbindersinc.com.

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