There’s a saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Naturally, this isn’t something that book cover designers embrace too readily. However, for the rest of us, it’s a reminder that you should never form an opinion about something or someone based on appearances.

Think Susan Boyle.
Okay, you can stop now.

Instead, picture the beautiful young American student, Amanda Knox. Accused, then later found innocent – and then later found guilty again – of the murder of Meredith Kercher, she was painted by the world’s media as something of a femme fatale despite none of them ever actually interviewing her. All the initial assumptions about her were founded less on fact and more on the way that she looked and behaved.

I don’t know whether she’s guilty or innocent. What I do know is that if you read her book, ‘Waiting to be Heard’ you will only draw one conclusion.
Her calm, care-free appearances in court were viewed by some as an act of callous contempt. Her sexy and provocative Facebook photos were interpreted by others as a sign of loose morals. As for the cartwheel in the police station – well let’s just put that down to youthful exuberance and a touch of nerves. Put it all together and it’s no wonder that we gorged on a series of lurid stories based on nothing more than hearsay, conjecture, and wild fantasy.

So why is it that many of us believe we can tell a person’s character just by looking at them, but at the same time are sure we can hide our own true character from others? Researchers at Groningen University in Holland coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority’ to describe this belief. In studies, they found that job interviewers tended to over-estimate how much they thought they could learn of someone’s character in a short meeting. Yet these same interviewers were certain that others could only get the merest glimpse of their character from such a brief encounter.

According to Nico Van Yperen and Bram Buunk, ‘illusory superiority’ leads people to believe: ‘I am infinitely subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and straightforward, and I can read you like an open book.’ (A word of warning: never say this to your partner if you want to watch the TV in peace.) Of course, this is further complicated when all we know of a person is what we’ve read in a magazine or seen on TV.

For one thing they’re always a lot shorter in real life.

So for the world to make snap judgments about what kind of person Amanda Knox is, or what thoughts were going through her mind when she was pictured in court, is plainly foolish. Even four years later when she was photographed smiling whilst boarding a plane home, some interpreted this as the cat that got the cream. And not someone who was relieved that the nightmare was finally over.

So is there a business lesson to be learned here? Well, it seems that an inclination to oversimplify the minds and motivations of others lies at the root of most forms of inter-group conflict at work. People tend to think that those on ‘their’ side are reasonable, reflective, and thoughtful, while those on the other side are not just wrong, but simplistic and dim.

Production don’t believe the sales team understand them. The sales guys think the accountants are just trying to stop them doing their important job.

Deep down, of course, we know that others are as complex and difficult to read as ourselves. However, trying to figure out what others might be thinking is hard work. It requires intellectual application, empathy, and imagination. So most of the time we don’t bother and are happy to accept the stereotypes and prejudices presented to us by the media or our gut instinct.

In my view Amanda Knox revealed what kind of person she really is in her book. But perhaps the image of her smiling as she boarded the plane home will live longer in the memory of those who don’t bother to read it. As for you, my friend, there’s a very simple way that you can improve your ability to really understand people. Assume nothing. Keep an open mind. And ask more questions.

But not just any old questions. They need to be Killer Questions. E mail me today at [email protected] and I’ll send you a copy of my 50 Killer Questions with pleasure.