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How "Theory of Mind" Drives Effective Selling

theory of mind in sales

ben-taylor2 April 2019Blog

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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 behaviour 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:

  1. Explore the Customer’s “Hidden Dialogue”
Theory of mind tells us that the sales professional’s conversation with the customer rarely reveals the full scope of the customer’s thinking. Outward conversations express only part of what the stakeholders discuss behind closed doors. These internal conversations are the hidden dialogues. Effective sales professionals seek inclusion in these conversations. They do so by becoming an active participant in the problem-solving process. They focus less on product features and more on understanding the customer’s take on the challenge or goal at hand. Earning access to the hidden dialogue means rising to the status of a trusted advisor by sharing insights that draw on their previous experience.

  1. Overcome the Customer’s Misperceptions
Theory of mind reminds us that others can suffer from misperceptions. In the “Smarties” experiment, children exhibiting theory of mind knew that there was a difference between what they knew (that the box was full of pencils) and what other kids assumed (that the box contained candy). Similarly, sales professionals must be aware of differing perceptions. Customers are performing more solution research independent of the sales professional. As a result, it’s easy for the customer to develop a false understanding of the challenge and the best path forward. Therefore, sales professionals must first know what the customer knows, then help the customer align with the real nature of the business challenge.

  1. Bring Relevant Value
Value is subjective. What matters to one customer will be irrelevant to another. To provide relevant value, sales professionals need a clear understanding of the customer’s goals. These goals fit into one of three categories: make money, save money, or reduce risk. Knowing the customer’s goal enables the sales professional to form their value proposition in a way that will resonate. However, the sales professional must first acknowledge that their information is different from the customer’s information. Moreover, the sales professional must continually track the customer’s information. That is, the customer’s knowledge, goals, and needs will change throughout the buying process. The customer’s initial idea of value rarely matches their final one.

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.

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