What is he thinking?

Posted by Doc
Jan 25 2009

In our dealings with others, we frequently spend some effort trying to figure out what the other person is thinking or feeling, what motivates them.

The reality is that we can never know.  All of us live inside our own heads.

So my premise is that I can never know what someone else is thinking, feeling, or what motivates them.

If that’s valid, then it means that time spent trying to figure it out is time wasted.

How can I use that time to find/create more value?

How about looking at the other person’s behavior, and wondering what the behavior means in terms of our relationship?

I can ask.

In Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al propose an approach to initiating a conversation they call STATE: State the Facts, Tell Your Story, Ask for Others’ Paths, Talk Tentatively, and Encourage Testing.

State the facts is pretty straightforward, if you can remember it’s about facts – not assumptions, interpretations, motivations, feelings, or anything else. Just the facts – what happened, what behaviors you observed.

Tell your story is about sharing your interpretation of the facts in the context of your relationship.  Things like “I felt like that meant you didn’t respect me” or “I took that to mean you were angry with me.”

Followed by Asking – “Is that anything like what was going on?” or “What was going on for you?”

Note that it is critical, in this approach, to avoid putting responsibility for my feelings on the other person.  I tell my Story as MY story – what I feel, what I interpreted.

Not “Why are you angry at me?’ or “You hurt my feelings.”

So rather than spending time trying to figure out what you’re feeling or thinking, I share what I know, what I’m feeling, my interpretation, and then I ask you for yours.

A conversation.  A dialogue.  A sharing, rather than conflict.

3 Responses

  1. Chris Matts says:


    This reminds me of a discussion I had with a colleague once. I was mentoring them on Project Management. At the start of our 3rd/4th meeting, they asked me to help them accuse someone of sexism.

    They told me that someone on their project was sexist. I let them rant, and then told them how to go about it, and the implications.

    I then asked them to list the behaviour that the person had exhibited that led them to that conclusion. So we listed the behaviour. It transpired that the person in question was awkward but exhibited no sexist behaviour. The previous manager had been of a different sex which is what my mentee focused on. They also had 30 years experience and knew how to handle the awkward character. My mentee did not so assumed it was sexism.

    There is a fairly nice cherry on the top if this story. I saw my mentee in the coffee queue a week later. “How’s it going?” I asked. “Much better” they replied “I’m even getting on better with my partner at home.”

    So focusing on behaviour rather than “What they are thinking or feeling or…” is a very powerful tool, especially for avoiding conclusions and keeping your options open.


  2. Joelle says:


    I’m Jo. I’m a nineteen year-old female college student in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I stumbled across this journal last night. I googled ‘vulnerability,’ then ‘being vulnerable,’ and there was one of your posts.

    This is great. I have an inability to know what someone really meant by something or what their intentions were. More often than not, if I experience hurt feelings because of something my friend or partner has said or done, I’m interpreting their words or actions wrong. But I’ve never really known a good way to put my feelings and interpretations out there without blaming them, and while getting across the message that I know this is my INTERPRETATION, not necessarily the reality.

    I also wonder if it shows how insecure I am, how little I trust, that I’ve interpreted something negatively. I’ve been focusing on learning to trust more, to trust in the good will of others, to trust in their love and kindness, and that helps with the nagging worries and the hurt feelings.

    I’m interested in picking up that book. Thanks for this guide. Been reading your journal and really liking it.

    • Jo,

      I’m glad you’re finding my writing helpful. Regarding your comment about whether it shows how insecure you are, all I can say is welcome to the club! 🙂

      I think we’re all pretty insecure, and we all struggle with giving and receiving trust. For a variety of reasons, many of us go immediately to negative interpretations first. The fact that you’re thinking about it and trying to do something about it is HUGE.


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