How "Theory of Mind" Drives Effective Selling
By the time we reach the age of 4 or 5, we develop something called “theory of mind.” We learn that another person’s knowledge is different from our own.
One simple study shows how theory of mind works. A child is shown a box with a label reading “Smarties,” a candy. An adult opens the box, revealing that pencils are inside. Then, the adult closes the box and asks the child what they think another child will guess when asked what’s inside.
If the child says that others will guess that Smarties are inside, the child has developed theory of mind. However, if the child says that another child will guess that pencils are inside, they have not developed theory of mind because they don’t understand that others are working from different information.
“We call it a theory because there’s nothing about the other person that shows that they’re thinking,” remarks University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Seyfarth. “Thoughts are hidden; we don’t see them. The only way we can imagine that thoughts are there and that they cause behavior is if we have a theory.”
Seyfarth explains that theory of mind is “not something we’re born with. You’ve got to learn it.” The problem is that we forget it.
Where We Go Wrong
Research in the International Journal of Cognitive Science revealed that “adults do not reliably use this sophisticated ability.” If we don’t retain this “theory,” we assume false information and make assumptions, both of which are costly for sales professionals.
The researcher’s findings are a wake-up call. Even though we develop theory of mind as children, we’re prone to forget it as adults, leading to “a stark dissociation between an ability to reflectively distinguish one's own beliefs from others.” Simply put: we cannot assume that others know what we know, or vice versa.
The researchers attempted to understand why adults fail to incorporate theory of mind into their thinking. They suggest that perhaps we abandon the effort to “compute” what another person knows because it requires too much effort. The researchers also suggest that we ignore knowledge gaps because we simply assume the other party will eventually correct us.
Sales professionals cannot afford to make this assumption. They must always be aware that their knowledge doesn’t always match the customer’s knowledge. The most powerful aspect of theory of mind is that it reminds sales professionals of this gap and that the only way to bridge the divide is to learn more about the customer’s knowledge.
Getting It Right with 3 Key Steps
Learning about the customer’s knowledge is more complicated than it has ever been. The reason: there are more stakeholders present. More decision makers mean the sales professional must uncover more needs. At the same time, the stakeholders are distracted with competing internal priorities and daily pressures that push the sale to the vanishing point of the horizon. Getting it right means doing three things:
- Explore the Customer’s “Hidden Dialogue”
- Overcome the Customer’s Misperceptions
- Bring Relevant Value
Relearning Theory of Mind
The study in the International Journal of Cognitive Science tells us that it’s easy to lose a critical developmental milestone from childhood. Some researchers warn that we succumb to “egocentric biases” when we fold too much of our own beliefs into our estimation of what others know.
Theory of mind is critical for all aspects of selling. Sales professionals must remember that their information and beliefs differ from those of the customer. Then, the sales professional must take the next step of asking questions to help narrow this gap. Additionally, sales professionals must remember that this process never ends because the customer’s notion of value changes throughout the buying process and across the numerous stakeholders involved.
Get industry insights and stay up to date, subscribe to our newsletter.
Joining our community gives you access to weekly thought leadership to help guide your planning for a training initiative, inform your sales strategy, and most importantly, improve your team's performance.