Sales psychology essentials: How Theory of Mind works

When we interact and work with people (customers, colleagues, managers, friends, family, etc.) it is important to be able to interpret and understand where the other person is coming from – their perspective, especially if we want to continue interacting and working with them in a manner that is beneficial to both parties.

Interpreting and understanding where another person is coming from does not automatically imply that we agree with their perspective. We may not agree. However, we at least know where they stand, what their perspective is, how they see the world. Ideally, the other person would respond in kind, but that is not always the case. It is critical to our survival that we understand that others might see things differently to ourselves.

This is about Theory of Mind.

Imagine that you are conducting a test with preschool children:

1. You get a tube of M&M’s and take out the chocolate and put in coloured pencils.

2. You then ask the child what they think is in the tube (they haven’t seen you take out the chocolate and put in the pencils) and they would (if they know what M&M’s are) say that they think there is chocolate in the tube.

3. You then show them that there isn’t chocolate, but pencils in the tube.

4. You ask them: ‘if your best friend (name) walked through the door and saw the tube, what would he/she think was in the tube?’

5. If the child says pencils, the test is failed. If the child says chocolate the test is positive.

What is being tested here is if the child has developed Theory of Mind or not.

Theory of Mind is the ability to interpret and understand another person’s mind and see their perspective. Successful sales/business professionals have Theory of Mind.

Theory of Mind is a theory insofar as the mind of a person is not directly observable. Therefore one has to make the presumption that others have a mind because each human being can only intuit the existence of their own mind through introspection, and no one has direct access to the mind of another.

Having Theory of Mind allows a person to attribute thoughts, desires and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions and to posit their intentions.

Empathy is a related concept of Theory of Mind. Empathy means there is recognition and understanding of the different states of mind, including beliefs, desires and particularly emotions of others. It is the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”.

What is interesting is that Theory of Mind appears to be an innate potential ability in people, but an ability that requires social and other experiences over many years to bring to cultivate and bring to fruition. We know that different people may develop more, or less, effective theories of mind.

To be able to accomplish this essential capability successfully is a life time’s work. It involves the regular practice and coordination of many skills and capabilities including: active listening, questioning, empathy, reflection, analysis, interpretation and association, paraphrasing, innovating, challenging ideas, assertiveness, diplomacy, etc. These capabilities, in themselves, can and need to be crafted over many years as a part of our sales/business and people resources if we are to master our roles as sales professionals and leaders.

The mastering of this psychological construct is essential for our success in any professional or personal relationship, especially sales.

Why is Theory of Mind important to sales and business?

You cannot hope to survive or thrive in business or life without a well-developed Theory of Mind. Only through the continuous practice and implementation of Theory of Mind can we fully understand our colleagues, partners and clients’ perspectives and then look for mutually beneficial solutions based on real, tangible and fair exchanges of value.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.