URSABLOG: Can You Read My Mind?

It continues to bother me a great deal how much effort goes into trying to work out what someone else is thinking. It bothers me more that we manifestly can’t. And it bothers me even more when people think that they can.


This is true in all walks of life: political and geopolitical; financial and economic; in business and commerce, tactically and strategically; in professional and personal relationships; in the bosom of our families; and in the highs and depths of our most passionate and desperate longings and ambitions. We work on assumptions, shortcuts, body language and what is done and said, and then something is done and said and these assumptions fall around our feet in dust, and blow away. How many times has it been said “I never really knew them, and could never be sure what they were really thinking?”


So much effort is made in trying to work out what Mr Putin or President Xi really thinks, and then everyone is shocked when they go and do what they said they were going to do. And when the Fed and other central banks say that they will continue to raise interest rates to tame persistently high inflation and the markets disagree because they think that there are different forces and factors at play, and yet the rates continue to rise.


The one good thing about market forces is that there is no thought behind them, so whatever we think the market in question is going to do, it is only our thoughts and decisions that matter. We gather all the information and data we think is relevant to form an opinion, but in the end we can only blame ourselves, or our way of thinking, when our opinion is wrong.


Last week saw me kindly invited to join a heavyweight panel convened by the Hong Kong branch of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers entitled “Asset Values in 2023 and Beyond (Focus on Dry Bulk)”. The panellists included representatives from Pacific Basin, Maritime Strategies International, Chellaram Shipping, KC Maritime, S&P Global Commodities and Teo Shipping. If you missed it you can see in on YouTube here. The presentations were insightful and the discussions robust, and all the panellists brought the weight of their expertise to bear. Did we come to any solid conclusions? Probably not, but nonetheless it was a worthwhile event to take part in, if only to know what and how people were thinking.


But what were we really thinking? Did all of the panellists (including myself) really say what was on our minds? We all have different responsibilities, different angles, different motivations. We were asked at the end of the session what we felt would happen to asset values in the future. I am afraid that I made a joke of it first – “Are you a buyer or a seller?” – and then honestly said what was on mind: “I don’t know.” I further qualified this with saying that there were too many variables for and against, and that the market would decide. At least I am consistent, if not decisive.


But on a more basic level do we really want to know what other people are thinking? When I think about how I think, I wonder whether other people think in the same way as me, or whether they would be horrified by the way my mind hops around all over the place unless it is concentrated on a specific task (and even then is liable to distraction). Would it actually help for someone else to know what I am actually thinking, or would it repulse them? This obviously would depend on what I was thinking about, but most of the time I take the easy way out: I find it confusing and disorienting if I say things that are different to what I mean, and therefore think.


But I don’t say everything that is on my mind: for a start I couldn’t keep up. Additionally, silence, or reticence, is a useful shield against ridicule, failure, conflict and confrontation. But if I don’t express myself properly then others will fill the vacuum with what they assume I am thinking and then jump to conclusions. This can lead to frustration and deadlock in negotiations of any sort. Trying to correct someone’s assumptions of my position requires a lot of work and effort, and persuasion, but in the process my assumptions of the other party may change too. This is not unhelpful. Negotiations are not just about numbers and facts, they are about sentiment and exploring whether or not we feel comfortable entering into a relationship with them, be it a voyage or time charter, an MOA or shipbuilding contract, a shipmanagement or port agency contract. In fact, every conversation or discussion we have with anyone is a kind of negotiation, trying to negotiate the world of relationships in our daily lives. In small or large ways we will always have to compromise to accept certain things except the things we really can’t. Until we can.


And that is before psychology and emotions kick in. There are three things – I guess you can call them emotions –that are hardwired into our brains that have made the human species so successful in reproducing themselves and conquering – and damaging in the process – the world around us: fear, pain and pleasure. Fear is instinctive, and helps us decide what to do when faced with a threat: fight, flight or freeze. Pain is instructive: it teaches us not to repeat doing what hurts us. Pleasure needs to be fed: it helps us grow and sustain ourselves in communities, and yes, reproduce.


Remove these emotions from the forests and plains of pre-history and place them in the modern world we live in and we are left with feelings of confusion and loss in times of trouble. Fear of the unknown can lead to us being aggressive, scared or stuck: perhaps a combination of all three. The place in the brain where physical pain is processed is also thought to process emotional pain and the most emotionally painful experience is social exclusion; useful for staying in communities, but loneliness is physically painful. Imagine why solitary confinement is seen as such a cruel punishment. And addiction to pleasure – food, sex, gambling, non-physically addictive drugs like cocaine and alcohol – is an over reliance on wanting to feel good when there is little peace of mind elsewhere.


Now put these emotions into negotiations – professional or personal – and you will see why many fail, but also why many succeed against the odds. A skilful use of the threat of fear (of missing out?), pain (of losing money?) and pleasure (of making money?) are helpful tools in business negotiations. I’ll leave it to your imaginations how these can be used in dinner table conversations at home.


Despite all this – or maybe because of it – we still want to know what other people are thinking, but usually ending up only assuming what they are thinking. As someone at a rather cheesy training session I once attended some time ago said: never ASSUME, as that makes an ASS out of U and ME. A bit cringeworthy, but also true. But are we so sure we want to know what the other is really thinking? Do we really want to know what they think of us? Or do we want to assert our own view of how other people should be thinking in order for them to conform to our way of thinking? So many of us struggle in our desire to be heard – to be taken account of – that we forget to truly listen. We hear what they say, but do not listen to what they are saying.


I suspect that my frustration at people trying to read other people’s minds, and failing, is actually a frustration at not making myself heard – in business and elsewhere – or worse, not acting as I would wish to, not being the best version of myself simply because of how I think. And as I think, therefore I am. The solution must be to enter into a dialogue, a conversation, a discussion and listen, and try to understand, and then act. After all successful negotiations end in agreement, and the most lasting agreements are ones where both sides have moved out of their comfort zones, to reach a compromise perhaps, but also to create something new. This is also one of the main reasons that shipbrokers will not become extinct any time soon.


Best regards,

Simon Ward