Become a mindreader = Succeed as a leader

Leadership | September 9, 2021
Interpreting what’s unspoken: The executive guide to being a mindreader

“Look on the bright side: that couldn’t have gone worse.”

The SVP of Engineering grimaced to his VP of Software Infrastructure as they walked out of a meeting with the Chief Product Officer.

Everyone knows when they’ve experienced a train wreck of a meeting. Even when they don’t hear it explicitly from their leader.

And even if no one says a word, you can tell by the way everyone drifts silently back to their respective offices that they all share the same feeling: “Well, THAT didn’t go very well.”

It is an undeniable sense of the invisible dynamics that played out in the room, versus a simple cause and effect. I’ll take it a step further to say:

You know when a meeting or any interaction is going downhill LONG before it concludes—and sometimes before it even starts—because your nervous system tells you. You feel it in your body.

Your nervous system is a valuable and powerful partner in your success. It “reads the room,” processes information, and provides feedback on unspoken drivers behind the scenes.

So how do you stop the train wreck before it happens? Or resolve its aftermath?

You unpack the unspoken data your nervous system collects on your behalf, to sort out what’s really happening. And move forward leveraging this information to solve the issue at hand, or expand on the opportunity revealed.

Take my relationship with longtime client, Jeff. Every time I got on a call with him, my heart would start to pound and I’d feel overcome with dread.

I’d started feeling anxious and—despite years of experience—weirdly inadequate, as if I wasn’t meeting his needs.

As my own reactions were triggered, Jeff started to seem dissatisfied, complaining about always having to solve a problem. “What if there’s no problem?” he grumbled irritably. He seemed suddenly critical of my coaching, despite trusting my judgment for years. Our sessions were floundering.

As I reflected over the sudden change in our relationship, I realized that the shift had happened right around the time Jeff had settled in at an unprecedented level of success in his leadership.

By tapping years of experience and my own intuition, I could now assess the information my nervous system had gathered like a satellite dish, and separate what signals were mine and which were not mine: the angst and even sense of inadequacy were not my feelings, but Jeff’s, around his new promotion.

This phenomenon is recognized in psychology as projective identification, where a person projects qualities they find unacceptable onto another individual, and that person takes on the projected qualities, and believes her- or himself to be characterized by them.

In our next session, rather than letting the rising sensations throw me off, I held my calm and simply witnessed the waves of feelings: the rise in anxiety, the self-doubt, the anger.

I could sense how deeply uncomfortable Jeff felt around directly asking for what he wanted, and communicating what he wanted next in his career—and life, for that matter. Jeff’s experience is not uncommon among leaders reaching a new pinnacle.

Instead of making these feelings about my own inadequacy, I held them with curiosity, was present with Jeff and was able to have one of most powerful coaching sessions to help Jeff get to the bottom of what was going on for him in his new role.

This unspoken data is just that: data. Just because I’d sensed some of Jeff’s feelings, I would never presume to tell someone what they were feeling. I can only note my intuition, and investigate further to see if it’s confirmed by the client.

As I guided Jeff through our next session, asking open-ended questions to get to the bottom of his current discomfort. He independently came to his own conclusions—that ultimately confirmed what I had sensed.

By tapping my self-awareness, I gained valuable insight that allowed me to better coach Jeff—a key leadership skill.

This is what I mean by learning how to read minds.

The skill set of translating what is left unsaid is CRITICAL to your success as a leader because, as I’ve said elsewhere, you’ll rarely get explicit feedback. Your EQ is an unwritten part of your job description.

Your ability to interpret what people aren’t saying, or “mindread,” is required to better lead, influence, and coach them toward high performance, cohesiveness and collaboration.

To do this, you’ll need to develop two skills:

One, self-awareness, the same tool I accessed with Jeff. So that you can distinguish between your thoughts, beliefs, or feelings and those that you’re picking up from someone else.

Developing self-awareness requires inner work and confidence, built over time. You need to be practiced enough that you trust the information your nervous system is detecting.

And two, depersonalization: so that you can witness someone else’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences without taking them personally, passing judgment, or otherwise letting your stories or biases muddy the communication. (I’ll dive deeper into depersonalization in my next article.)

And yep, these are skills that you continually hone over a lifetime.

But with the help of a coach trained in cultivating self-awareness and partnering with your nervous system, you can slash the time needed to master these skills. Learn more today by scheduling a complimentary discovery call.
Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant