Thinking Errors

“She should have known better…”

Jodi was a people-centered leader. Her values drove her decisions. Depending on the situation, her values might align with the consumer or the company, with the employee or the corporation. People didn’t view her as wishy-washy but rather as a weather vane that consistently pointed toward the right thing to do.

But people also knew that sometimes she cared “too much.” She could get angry. And not just angry, but hurt. She could hold grudges and seem easily wounded.

Early in our coaching, Jodi told me about a young woman named Britt with whom she was particularly angry. Britt had introduced herself via email and asked for an appointment to get some career advice. It was widely known that Jodi welcomed those sorts of meeting requests. Not surprisingly, she had said yes to Britt.

“But when she showed up,” Jodi said, still steamed, “she didn’t really want career advice. She wanted to complain about something one of my vice-presidents did at a meeting!”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“Well, I was pissed! I still am! I feel like I got sandbagged. I asked her why she didn’t just tell me the truth, instead of lying about it?”

“And she said…?” I asked.

“Oh, all the usual stuff. That she didn’t think it would go over well in an email. And that she didn’t think I would’ve accepted an invitation that said, ‘Complaints about Carlos.’ Blah, blah, blah.”

“To which you said…?”

“That she should have known better.”

Falsehoods as truths

Twice before in our coaching conversations, Jodi had said that someone “should have known better.” Hearing that phrase now for the third time, I spoke up.

“Do you know what I call those words—the words, ‘she should have known better’? I call them a thinking error.”

“A thinking error? Is that a real thing?” she asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “The words ‘she should have known better’ are a perfect example.”

“Why is that a thinking error?” she asked.

“Well, for one thing, that ‘should’ statement isn’t true.”

“It’s true to me!” she said.

“I know,” I smiled. “That’s part of what makes it a thinking error.”

She thought a minute, then said, “Can you define ‘thinking error’ for me?”

I paused, then said, “A thinking error is a pattern of thoughts that aren’t true. But we believe them. And since it’s a pattern, it repeats itself. Usually for years. Thinking errors tend to lead to bad outcomes.”

“Well, I don’t think there’s any bad outcome in this case,” said Jodi.

“I do,” I said. “You’re angry at this young woman and it’s not her fault. I’d say that’s a bad outcome.”

“But she lied. That is her fault.”

“She did lie. I agree. That’s not the thinking error. The thinking error is that you think she ‘should have known better.’ You’ve used those words before. It’s a pattern with you. And those words just aren’t true. She couldn’t have known better. That thought is a thinking error.”

She furrowed her brow. “I’m clearly not getting this.”

Your judgment is yours. Period.

I took a different tack. “When you say she ‘should’ve known better,’ what do you really mean?”

“That she should’ve used good judgment!”

“Whose good judgment?”


I smiled. My point was as good as made. “So you’re saying she ‘should’ have used your judgment so she would behave the way you would behave. Sorry. That’s not possible. The only person who can use your judgment is you.”

She narrowed her eyes, puzzling this out. “Is it a thinking error because of the word ‘should’?” she asked.

“That’s part of it,” I said. “The instant you use the word ‘should,’ you turn the situation into a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong.’ But there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It’s all just judgment, just opinion.

“Look, Jodi, I agree that Britt’s choice was pretty immature. Some other executive might not have had a problem with it. But you did. That’s why I say it’s a matter of opinion. You think she ‘should have known better.’ But how could she have known better? If she could have, she would have! But she can’t ‘do better.’ She’s not you. You’re angry at her because she didn’t do it your way. That’s not fair.”

She considered for a moment. Then asked, “Are there other thinking errors? Or do I win the prize?”

I laughed. “You definitely do not have a lock on the market for thinking errors. There are lots!”

“For example…” she invited.

Errors in thinking about feelings

“The ones I hear most often these days are about feelings. Either people don’t own their feelings, or they try to own other people’s feelings.”

“How can anyone own someone else’s feelings?” she asked.

I told her about Donald. For over twenty years, he’d been a devoted employee at a global software company. I met him after he’d risen to the rank of senior vice president leading a worldwide division.

When the company’s top executives announced yet another round of layoffs—this round even deeper than the others—he collapsed.

“What am I going to tell them this time?” he whispered, dabbing at his eyes. “I have to announce the layoffs using this horrible video system. I don’t think I’ll be able to get through it. It’s devastating.”

Quietly I asked him, “You’re not losing your job, are you?”

“No, but a lot of them are going to lose theirs. And there’s been so much bloodletting already. They’re gonna be in so much pain.”

“Yes, they are. But it’s their pain, Donald, not yours.”

“Well, I want to make them feel better,” he said.

I looked at Jodi and said, “Donald thought he was responsible for what his people were going to feel. He thought he could make his people feel better.”

“But you can make people feel better,” Jodi countered, sitting up a little.

“No, you can’t, Jodi. That’s the thinking error.” I shifted gears. “Suppose you and I are married. I don’t care how good our marriage is, you can’t ‘make’ me happy. You can’t ‘make’ me angry. You can’t ‘make’ me love you. It’s not possible. You can’t ‘make’ me feel anything.”

“But I can try!” Jodi said.

“Sure,” I agreed. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll feel the emotion you want me to feel. You can’t ‘make’ that happen.” I took a breath. “Look, let’s say you get me flowers because it’s been hard times for me. You want to make me happy and flowers usually cheer me up. But I’m stuck in my mood and the flowers do absolutely nothing for me. If you think you ‘should’ have been able to ‘make’ me happy, your feelings might get hurt. Or you might get angry with me. And why? Because of a thinking error that has you believing you can ‘make’ me feel a certain way. You tried to own my feelings.”

Who owns whose feeling?

More to herself than me, she wondered, “I can’t ‘make’ anyone happy?” After a minute, she asked, “What’s the other thinking error you mentioned?”

“Not owning your own feelings.”

“What does that sound like?” she asked.

I told her about a woman who led an IT team in a consumer products company. Whenever we would discuss her boss, she would say things like, “He’s a scary guy,” and “He makes me feel like I’m stupid” and “He’s intimidating.”

I said, “But no one can be intimidating. That’s the thinking error.”

“You never met my college volleyball coach!” she joked.

I smiled and continued. “We used to have a saying in the theatre. ‘You can’t act like a king; people have to treat you like a king.’ It’s a great idea, because an actor can’t act intimidating or powerful or commanding, or whatever that king is supposed to be.”

“But if a king goes around throwing people into dungeons, that is intimidating!”

“To most people, probably,” I agreed. “But good drama comes when there’s one person who isn’t intimidated. And if one person isn’t, then anyone could feel unintimidated. So if the king doesn’t intimidate everyone…”

“Then he can’t be intimidating,” she finished. “I think I see. But why is that about feelings?”

“Because when I say, ‘He’s intimidating,’ what I really mean is, ‘I feel intimidated around him.’ That’s owning my feelings, my reactions. But instead, people make the other person responsible for their feelings. ‘He ‘makes’ me feel stupid.’ And it just isn’t possible. That’s the thinking error.”

“Because he can’t ‘make’ you feel anything,” she said, nodding.

More errors revealed

Then, perking up, she said, “Hey! What about this: ‘She ‘made’ me do it.’ Is that a thinking error?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it is! The other day, my daughter did something really stupid. And she said, ‘But Amanda made me do it!’ And I said, ‘You mean she held a gun to your head?’ And she said, ‘Well, no, but…’ And I said, ‘Then she didn’t ‘make’ you do anything.’”

“Aha! A thinking error revealed!”

“Got any more?” she asked.

“One that a lot psychologists talk about is ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. I hear it from certain high-performing executives; if something isn’t 100%, it’s worthless.”

As we discussed all-or-nothing thinking, she said, “That one seems to have passed me by. Lucky me. But I have a couple of people in my group who are plagued with it! They are perfectionists and it’s going to hold them back.”

I told her I would send her a Coaching Tip I wrote many years ago about all-or-nothing thinking. And another one about using the word “should.

Jodi got intrigued with thinking errors. She searched the web and found lots of articles and lists and descriptions of them.

One day, she said, “Thinking errors are like blind spots. It’s hard to recognize them.”

I agreed. So we began to play a game during our coaching sessions. Whenever I heard her utter a thinking error, I quietly said, “Error.” Sometimes she would stop and we’d argue the point. Slowly, she began to anticipate my arguments. And soon, she was able to recognize her thinking errors before I did.

Not surprisingly, as her awareness grew, she began to hear thinking errors coming from the mouths of the people she worked with. And from the mouths of the people she lived with. Sometimes she became a teacher and shared what she’d learned about thinking errors. Other times she just observed. But her own thinking errors diminished, which put her closer to The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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