1 Big Idea to Think About

  • The best way to understand what’s going on in someone’s mind is to ask them. Don’t assume; ask.

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Identify someone you want to get insight from (customer, spouse, child, etc.). 
  • Ask them directly what they are thinking. 

3 Questions to Ask

  • What is the most valuable thing I/we do for you?
  • What do you wish I/we wouldn’t do?
  • How can I be a better spouse/friend/parent?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • Quibi: What happens when what we offer doesn’t match what people want (4:56)
  • The dark side of perspective guessing (7:21)
  • The best way to understand another person’s perspective (11:09)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode


Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Effortless and Essentialism. And I am here with you on this journey to learn how and why, and really how to understand each other. 

Have you ever invested heavily in a new product or service for your customers only to find they didn’t buy it? Have you ever put in a lot of effort into getting someone a gift only to find that their response was lukewarm? Would you like to be less wrong? Less wrong in your relationships at work and at home? 

Today, I will share some surprising stories, some counterintuitive research that I’ve been reading, and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will be able to improve your use of time and resources by increasing your empathic accuracy. Let’s begin.

Get more from today’s episode by sharing the ideas in this podcast with someone else within 24 to 48 hours of listening. As you teach that, by posting online or sending an email, or having a conversation, you’ll get a higher return on your effort, a higher ROE. 

Do you remember the fateful story of Quibi? You remember the streaming platform? It generated content for viewing on mobile devices. It was founded in LA in August 2018 by Jeffrey Katzenberg and led by Meg Whitman. The service raised $1.75 billion from investors. It launched in April 2020 but shut down in December, 2020 after falling short of its subscriber projections and eventually was sold to Roku for less than $100 million dollars. That’s the kind of story that grabs my attention because they got all the top stars. They handpicked exceptional leadership and talent connected in both Silicon Valley and also in Hollywood. They put together all of the top stars themselves in the content.

They designed it in beautifully packaged form, but it lasted just six months. They thought carefully about the service, didn’t they? They put together a talented team of people, didn’t they? What went wrong? And how, in our own investment decisions with, how we spend our time with how we spend our resources, can we be less wrong? What they had was a situation that something was an enormous cost to them. And especially to their investors, to the tune of $1.75 billion. That’s an enormous amount to lose, but it was of low value to the people they were trying to serve. The customers did not buy it, literally did not buy it. And what we want, of course, in our own decisions is exactly the opposite. Something that is low cost to us and high value to the people that we are trying to serve. 

Now, what are we supposed to do when we’re trying to understand the people we are trying to create value for?

Have you ever been taught, for example, that if you want to understand someone, you need to put yourself into the other person’s shoes? CEOs are supposed to put themselves in their shoes. Managers are supposed to get into the heads of their team members. Spouses are supposed to see it from their spouse’s perspective. A parent should try to see things the way their teenager sees things. This is a useful rule of thumb because it reminds us that the way we see the world is not the way other people do. It reminds us that we don’t see the world as it is but as we are; however, there is a dark side to this perspective guessing. Here’s why. 

Nicholas Eley, a researcher and the author of Mind Wise, wrote the following, “In a series of experiments that my collaborators and I conducted. We asked our volunteers to take several commonly used mind reading tests. These included trying to detect what emotion someone was feeling by looking at a picture of their face and trying to tell what someone was thinking by looking only at their eyes.”

“Never have we found any evidence that this kind of perspective, taking, putting yourself in another person’s shoes, and imagining the world through his or her eyes, increased accuracy in these judgments. In fact, in both cases, perspective, taking consistently decreased accuracy, overthinking someone’s emotional expression or inner intentions when there’s little else to go on, might introduce more error than insight.” 

Okay? So here’s the idea, even carefully thinking about someone else’s perspective doesn’t mean we will see them correctly. In fact, if the way you see someone else is wrong, then carefully thinking about their perspective will make us more wrong. Just think of any time you have taken the time to get a gift for someone that didn’t seem to hit the mark, you put in the time, money, and effort, but you could tell they weren’t thrilled about it. Perhaps they took the gift back or never used it.

Epley continues from his own life. “Now I’m reminded of this problem every year at Christmas, where the gifts I give after carefully, honestly, and deliberately putting myself in my family member’s perspectives seem to miss the mark as often as they hit it. One miss is particularly memorable. Several years ago, I got what I believed was the best gift ever for my wife. Spending a day as an animal handler at Chicago’s shed aquarium, my wife has always adored dolphins, and she loves the aquarium. If I had those two preferences, I reasoned while putting myself in her shoes; then this was the best possible gift in the entire city I could get. I could not have been more mistaken. My wife was kind as always, but she returned my gift. What I’d missed was how her current circumstances had changed. What I believed were her long-term preferences, a common mistake among gift giving, according to the research. She had just given birth to our second son two months before and was in no mood to squeeze into a wetsuit and hold stinky fish while exhausted from a lack of sleep. This perspective is obvious in hindsight, and yet gift givers tend to overlook details of such new circumstances in foresight. I tried hard to take her perspective but ended up badly mistaking it.”

“What’s the best way to get someone a gift? The science is clear. You don’t try to adopt another person’s perspective and guess better. Instead, you adopt a different approach. You have to actually get the other person’s perspective. And perhaps the only way to do that is to ask what they want or listen carefully while they drop hints and then give it to them.” 

That turns out to be widely applicable wisdom. So if you want to be less wrong in your investments, in your decisions, don’t guess the perspective of the other person, i. e. given what I know of the person, what would they want? Instead, you ask them. 

There’s a marvelous piece of research about this, an experiment in which romantic partners predicted each other’s attitudes. There were three groups that were tested. The first group were encouraged to guess the perspective of their romantic partner, and that increased the error and reduced the accuracy as compared to the second group, which was a simple control condition. But there was a third group. Instead of guessing the perspective of their partner, they were allowed to get the perspective of their partner. They were allowed to ask the other person the survey questions before predicting their responses. Like you see the idea, the couples in that group were given the questionnaire, and one partner interviewed the other by asking him or her all of the questions, which of course, is a bit like being able to ask the teacher for answers to the test just before taking it.

It can hardly be a surprise that getting the perspective in this way was far more effective than guessing those who first asked for their partner’s thoughts, cut their overall error rate nearly in half compared to the control condition. And they did even better than that compared to those who were guessing the perspective of their partners, really trying to get into their head of the person. They really believed they knew well. 

So maybe it seems like cheating to ask your spouse what he or she thinks instead of guessing at the answer, but as Epley points out, life is not an in-class exam with an honor code. If you want to know, ask rather than guess; if you want to understand what’s going on in someone’s mind, don’t assume; ask. We should trust our ears over our inferences. 

Think of the difference between this kind of perspective, guessing, and perspective, getting. Executives guess about their customers from the boardroom compared to getting customer insights through face-to-face conversations. Managers guess about how their people are doing versus managers who get employee insights because they make them feel safe enough to share what they really feel.

Compare spouses who walk past each other in silence because they assume they already understand how the other sees things versus spouses who share their thoughts openly and verify that they’ve heard correctly. Or parents or compare parents who make up stories about their children. Oh, my teenager just doesn’t care about anything I say, versus parents who rely on their ears more than their inferences. It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But that doesn’t make it common practice. 

Here’s actionable advice to be able to put this into practice immediately when it comes to Christmas gifts or gifts in general. You can ask, what would you like for Christmas? What would you really like? If you could only have one gift, what would it be? Can you send me a link to the gift you want? 

If you’re trying to get insights on customer preferences, ask them directly. What is the most valuable thing we do for you? What do you wish we didn’t do? How are we making this harder than it needs to be? 

If you’re trying to get insights from your spouse, ask them what’s on your mind. How are you feeling about that? Would you like me to listen or to take action on this? How can I be a better spouse to you right now? 

I should say at this point that I can be really reactive to even small items of feedback. I can take things really personally, you know; even the slightest nod from Anna on something has me jumping up to change and at the same time, feeling defensive. How wrong I can be when I guess the meaning behind her words, behind a change in expression, by the tone of a voice. And I can be the same with other people too. So this is just one of many places I need to improve in this vital subject of empathic accuracy. As William Ikes, a leading authority on exactly that subject has said, “The best predictor. So far of empathic accuracy appears to be verbal intelligence.”

Have you ever invested heavily in a new product or service for your customers only to find they didn’t buy it? They didn’t want it. Have you ever put a lot of effort into getting someone a gift only to find that their response was lukewarm or worse? Would you like to be less wrong with relationships at work or at home and stop guessing people’s perspective and get it instead?

If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first three people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy, which is a series of powerful courses and tools designed to help you explore and identify what is truly essential in your life, eliminate the nonessential, and make execution as effortless as possible. For more details, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo.

If you want to share or teach just one idea or someone else from today’s episode, here is one. If you want to get to the wrong conclusion fast, then guess what’s going on. If you want to get to the essence of the real issue fast, then make it safe for people to tell you. Don’t guess people’s perspective. Get their perspective.