Seeing What Others Don't

The remarkable ways we gain insights

Mind-Reading

A Skeleton Key for Explaining Rebuffs.

Have you ever been frustrated when someone refused a reasonable request for no apparent reason? Ideally, we could ask for an explanation when this happens to us, but that isn’t always possible. So we are left steaming. But we can take a more active stance and try to speculate about what might have caused the turndown.

I recently conducted a study of how people come up with causal explanations.I ran into this issue in one of the interviews I conducted. An Air Force enlisted man was in charge of keeping fire engines serviced. Air Force bases contain lots of volatile fuels and need lots of fire suppression equipment in case of any accidents. The man I was interviewing was worried about one of his fire engines that had become run down. He wanted to bring it into the maintenance depot for a total overhaul, but it wasn’t scheduled for depot repairs for another year. He had a second fire engine that was scheduled to go to the depot in a few weeks; this second fire engine was actually in pretty good shape. So he contacted the chief of the maintenance depot and asked permission to swap the schedule and bring in his first engine instead of the second one.

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Permission denied! His request was turned down. He told me how angry he was, and how he had to go to all kinds of extra work to keep that first fire engine running. However, when I asked him why his request was denied, he told me he had no idea. He never asked, never inquired. Never speculated.

I came across a few other examples of people who didn’t wonder why others had acted in ways that were mean-spirited or insensitive. And I compiled a set of possible reasons. These reasons can serve as a starting point for speculation and even for remedial action when someone rejects a request we make.

Knowledge. Maybe the other person knows something we don’t. Or vice-versa — maybe we mistakenly assume the person knows something we take for granted. In this fire engine example, the enlisted man had provided details of the two engines, so the depot had the knowledge it needed. Otherwise, he might have followed up with more information and perhaps a photograph.

Beliefs. Similar to knowledge, maybe the other person holds a different belief than we do. A mismatch in beliefs often leads to confusion. Even worse, sometimes we hold different beliefs than another person but assume we hold the same beliefs, a delusion rather than confusion. In the fire engine example, the depot chief may well have held different beliefs about how things are supposed to happen. A face-to-face conversation might have cleared some of these up. 

Constraints. Maybe the other person is limited in ways we don’t appreciate. In the fire engine example, maintenance regulations probably prevented the depot chief from arbitrarily doing the kind of swapping my interviewee requested. If the second engine broke down unexpectedly and it was discovered that depot had failed to do routine maintenance, the depot chief would have gotten into trouble, not the enlisted man I interviewed. The remedy here could have been to have a higher-ranking officer make an official request so that there was a paper trail, absolving the depot chief of blame. 

Priorities. Other people have different motivations than we do. Only by putting ourselves in their shoes can we appreciate what is driving them. The depot chief was likely motivated by a desire to keep to his repair schedule. He didn’t particularly care about how the vehicles were being used. His priorities were different from the enlisted man I interviewed. Therefore, the depot chief had no incentive to agree to the request to swap engines. However, in other cases we can resolve problems by inquiring into priorities. Recently a friend of mine made a request that I thought was unreasonable. I refused the request, but I also asked what had motivated it. “You seem to need something that I’m not aware of. Can you tell me what it is?” I asked him. I learned more about what my friend was trying to do, helping us find an arrangement that worked for both of us.

My research suggests that when people get rebuffed they become frustrated and angry, but they would do better to become curious about the reason for the rejection. I also found that people assume that others are like them, operating under the same knowledge, beliefs, constraints and priorities. This mirror assumption makes it easier to speculate about why others act in the way they do, but sometimes the mirror assumption is wrong. And in those cases, the mirror assumption makes the rebuff harder to understand. 

I am suggesting that we should be prepared to relax the mirror assumption. At these times, we need a skeleton key to unlock the thoughts of the other person.  The skeleton key I am suggesting is to consider possible differences in the knowledge, beliefs, constraints and priorities of the other person  This stategy may help us understand personal rebuffs and even, on occasion, to find a way around them.

Follow me on Twitter @KleInsight for updates on decision making and insight.

Gary Klein is Senior Scientist at MacroCognition LLC; his most recent book is Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights.

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