How the “Pictures in our Heads” cause all sorts of trouble

pictures in our heads

By: Mark Wolters, Co-President & Co-Founder, SalesEvolve

With 20 years experience as a psychotherapist and business owner, one of the universal truths that I discovered was that the ‘pictures in our heads’ can get us into all sorts of trouble!

More often than not, when tension arise in any relationship – whether between an employer and an employee, a child and a parent, a student and a teacher, or two companies who are bumping into each other – it can almost always be traced back to a moment where each party thought they were on the same page – but, after the day-to-day routines of time has passed, found themselves in very different places.  Both parties end up feeling betrayed and/or confused by the other.  The end result is hurt and distrust, and often leads to ‘never conducting business with each other again’. All because of the pictures in our heads.

Before diving further into this concept; here are a few examples of how this situation occurs naturally and how fast it can happen. 

I often use these examples at SalesEvolve when training new staff or onboarding a new client. 

“I went to the cottage last weekend.”

Stop for a moment and consider the “pictures in our heads”?

  • Was it sunny? 
  • Was family present, or were you on a retreat?
  • Was it on the water? 
  • Did you feel good about being there, or did you feel bored?
  • Did you wish me well?  Or, did you feel resentment about not having a cottage of your own?
  • Did I spend my time outside, or curled up with a good book?

The Pictures in our heads are likely your ideal or familiar cottage setting.

Without my knowledge, you likely applied characteristics to my experience.  As they have taken place silently in your mind, I can’t control them, and I have no idea what they are – but that ‘picture in your head’ now exists.  It happened so quickly that you might not even be aware that it happened.   Even more interestingly, is that the ‘picture’ you now have will unconsciously or consciously (if you had a strong reaction) impact your interaction with me going forward (psychologists refer to this as a bias).  Perhaps you assume I have a disposable income?  Maybe now you see me as someone you can relate too?  Maybe I’ve become someone you would like to know better, because I own a cottage?  Maybe it brings back great memories of your own cottage experience.

In this particular example, there was no future interaction dependent on our pictures being aligned.  It was simply a statement and further questions, while they may prove interesting, are unlikely to impact next steps in our relationship.

However, once we engage with our spouse, clients, new staff members, or new friends, it becomes increasingly important to manage our communication and understand that we project a “picture” for others with words we use.  Does the ‘picture’ we heard or spoke match the reality of the one that was intended?

“Let’s visit my parents for Thanksgiving this year.”

  • Are you looking forward to this, or are you starting to panic a little?
  • How long did you imagine you would be there?  All weekend?  Or, just an afternoon?
  • Who was making the food?  Is a meal together even in the plan?
  • Did you imagine watching football all weekend?  Or, playing outside in the leaves?
  • Do you have to sleep on the pull-out sofa, or do you get the guest bedroom?
  • Do we need someone to look after the dogs?

You can see with this example, that if the ‘pictures’ each person has about Thanksgiving are not aligned – there could be some misunderstandings or hurt feelings, or even an unexpected conflict with other family members.  You naturally have assigned roles and responsibilities to the significant parties in your mind and are expecting a level of participation from them that they might be unaware of. Of course, when people are not aware of the specific roles you have assigned it can lead to confusion, hurt feelings and defensiveness, and perhaps even anger when your expectations are not met and they have no idea how they ‘failed’ you!

This same principal applies when engaging with new clients. 

“Yes, I would like to move forward with a purchase of your product/service”.

  • Do we know exactly why they chose us? 
  • What are the client’s expectations?
  • Does the client understand our process?
  • Have we communicated realistic deliverables?
  • Do we know how to best support the successful implementation and use of our product/service?
  • Do we, the service provider, understand our clients’ expectations?

When onboarding new clients the pictures we have in our heads will directly impact that customer experience.   

Here’s an example.  In our business, it is common for companies to say: ‘we need help generating more leads’.  

There could be all sorts of ways for us to interpret what they want – and if we started to ‘solve’ their request without really hearing and understanding them – we could really miss the true need and work really hard on the wrong things (with the best of intentions of course!)

As a result, it is important that my team asks the right questions. 

How are they getting leads now? Are they looking for higher quality leads?  Are they lacking resources to generate good quality leads?  Are they entering a new market?  Do they have an established process for onboarding a new client?  Do they have the supporting documentation that prospects will be requesting – or will they need some help getting that built?  Do they have internal sales process, or do we need to help them build one? Is the message clear in stating value?  Or is it as simple as needing an extra pair of experienced hands to help build on their current resources.


It is human nature to fill in the blanks with images and our own perceptions from past experiences. It would be inconvenient to stop a person every few seconds and ask for clarification – so to make sense of what we are hearing we add in concepts that we feel are reasonable from our own life experience. And for the most part, this works great.

However, when 2 parties are dependent on each other – it is crucial to ensure that those intersection points are shared and understood.  Qualifying questions like “thanks for sharing that, just to make sure I understand you correctly”, “would you mind if I summarized what I think you are asking for?” or, “would you mind if I asked a few more questions to make sure I understand?” go a long way in aligning those pictures.

The next time you are in a conversation with someone – ask yourself – do you really understand the ‘picture’ they have in their head?  Both your family and your customers will appreciate the care you put into trying to understand them!

Good luck out there!


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