The Discovery Process: Mental Map

By: Terry Gault

How customers view you or your products is garnered by a framework of assumptions, stories and images in their minds. If you really want to influence someone, your first task is to understand how they think. An individual’s perspective on the world can be identified and “(mind) mapped.”

A Model for Asking Questions

Step 1. Neutral Prompts

Force the customer to control the direction of the dialogue. Watch and learn the customer’s tendencies: to what issues does the customer repeatedly return? What is the emotional state of the customer around each of the issues (excitement, fear, confusion)?

Step 2. Define the Universe with Wide Questions

Use questions to identify the universe of customer concerns. Frequently a presenter hears the customer identify an interesting issue and then immediately starts digging into that issue in depth. Only later in the process does the presenter learn that this was a relatively minor issue to the customer. (Sur comments: Try to use 5 W + 1 H pattern, and use Concept Map to draw their answers).

Step 3. Prioritizing Issues with Priority Questions

Once you have concerns, now spent in this explore their identified all of the issues within the customer’s universe of ask the customer to prioritize their concerns. Time needs to be step further utilizing empathic responses to help the customer real priorities.

Step 4. Pursue Detail with Deep Questions

After the customer successfully prioritizes their concerns, now ask questions that deepen the conversation about the top ranking issues. The questions are all directed to further the depth of inquiry on a particular issue. These questions can be short or as long as necessary to legitimately plumb and understand the depth of the customer’s knowledge about each of these issues.

Skills for Understanding our Mental Maps

1. Suspending Assumptions/Judgments:

Holding our own views in abeyance; refraining from imposing them on others but not suppressing or holding them back: as if our assumptions are suspended in the air before us, hanging on a string a few feet before our noses.

2. Seeing Each Other As Colleagues:

Seeing the other as a colleague in a mutual quest for clarity. The greatest benefits are achieved by viewing “adversaries” as “colleagues with different views.”

3. Pay Attention to Your Intentions:

Understanding what you hope to accomplish: “What is my intention?” “Am I willing to be influenced?”

4. Reflection:

Slowing down the thinking process in order to become more aware of how you form your mental models. Most people believe that, when faced with difficult problems, the thing to do is act. In dialogue, the motto could be “Don’t do something, just stand there.” “What is it I am thinking?” “What do I want at this moment?”

5. Advocacy:

Making your thinking process visible by stating your assumptions and providing the data as to how you arrived there. “Here’s what I think, and here’s how I got there.” “I assumed that…”

6. Inquiry:

Holding conversations where we openly inquire into each other’s assumptions, thinking and reasoning. “What leads you to conclude that?” “Can you help me understand your thinking here?”

Balance Advocacy and Inquiry

Making your thinking and reasoning visible to others (Sur comments: Concept Map or Mind Map can be a great help here), and then encouraging others to challenge it. Most of us have received sales training in how to be forceful and articulate “advocates” for our position or product. But we often find that as we push and bombard the customer with our pitch, they begin to shrink back and grow resistant.

Balancing advocacy and inquiry might sound like:

“I believe you need this product. I believe you need it because…. Does that sound right? Are there any obvious flaws in my reasoning? Am I missing any information important to making the right decision?”

Building Shared Meaning:

Using language with precision, taking care to make evident the meaning — or lack of meaning. This is the especially important with more simple phrases.

“You said, ‘Get this project finished.’ What is ‘finished’?”

“Getting it to marketing.”

“So you’re not including getting it shipped?”

“I hadn’t intended to. What leads you to believe that ‘finished’ would include shipping?”


Hearing the answers to our inquiries with openness and understanding.

“Where does your reasoning go next?”

“Am I correct that you’re saying…?”

Case Study

The Detroit Big Three: How they lost the American market so quickly.

A good example of how tacit assumptions in mental maps can affect human behavior is the loss of the U.S. car market to foreign competitors.

German and Japanese Imports increased their share of the U.S. market from near zero to 38 percent by 1986. How did that happen?

Research suggests that the Detroit Big Three had very similar mental maps, most of which included the assumptions cited on the left.

For many years these assumptions had been “A magic formula” for success. The Detroit auto-makers didn’t say, “We have a mental map that asserts all people care about is styling.” They said, “All people really care about is styling.”

They remained unaware that this was merely their construct and not the final “reality”. The validity of their mental map therefore remained unexamined. As the world changed, a gap widened between Detroit’s mental map and reality, leading to increasingly counter-productive actions.

About Terry Gault

Terry Gault is a coach, trainer, and consultant in presentation and communications skills. He has worked with clients such as Oracle, GE, Wells Fargo, Visa, EMC, eBay, etc. In addition, Terry oversees all curriculum, services and selection, training and development of all trainers and facilitators for The Henderson Group. He also had a 20 year career in the theater working as an actor, teacher, director, writer and producer. In addition, Terry worked in sales and management in the building industry for over 10 years.

* Mental Map = Concept Map or Mind Map.