The Danger of Reading Minds
Conversations should be simple. You talk. Others listen and then respond. They talk. You listen and respond. Repeat. Repeat. With friends, colleagues, strangers, family members tall and small - any and all dialogue is defined by this seemingly simple interaction. Talk, listen, respond, repeat. So how do we end up messing it up? How do we end up confused, misunderstood, and disengaged from even the idea of talking about the stuff that needs to be talked about?
We all have the distinct honor of viewing the world through our own unique lens. Since each person experiences the same set of circumstances in a different way, the belief systems and values and lessons that we take away from life are never the same for any one of us. Haven't you ever come out of a movie and thought "that was a terrible ending because it left me wondering what will happen next" and the person who sat right next to you said "I thought the ending was perfect." Didn't we just see the SAME movie?!?
Movies are just one example. How about the differing opinions of what we think we saw at a crime scene? Or what we heard last week on the news? Everything is susceptible to differing beliefs about what has occurred and what is real. Is it really any surprise that our conversations are, too? Those differing perspectives have a deep impact on what we hear and see when we converse with another. Everything from their body language to what they don't utter at all are viewed from our perspective and sadly, misinterpreted. We think we know what they mean. We know what they think. We know how they must be feeling when we say something. And if we know this person well, we often feel like we shouldn't bother to have a conversation at all, after all, we already know how it is going to go. This "mind reading" that occurs when we interact with others is the result of a life spent believing that what we see is accurate. But what if it just isn't?
Social worker turned author turned empathy guru Brene Brown speaks so passionately about the stories we tell in our heads. The stories we tell in our heads are what we believe is really going on, facts be damned. The stories we tell are our assumptions about what another believes, how the world treats us, and how others will feel if we do certain things. This story is just that - a story. A fictional tale that might not be true at all. It interferes with having a reciprocal, complete and thoughtful dialogue. We miss out on what is actually going on because we are so busy assuming we already know what is going on based on the story we have told ourselves. Storytelling is a form of mind-reading.
Reading minds just feeds the narrative of what we want to hear, or what we want to be true. Especially in arguments, we have often already planned how we are going to rebut what the other person is going to say. We have crafted a conversation and when the real one is occuring, we are expecting to hear certain things so that it can proceed the way we planned. We are so busy creating a narrative, we miss the actual one occurring in real time. And it doesn't help either party move forward. Mind reading prevents us from seeing the full picture. When we think we already know what the other person thinks or feels, we find the evidence around us to support that.
I do it with my kids on more occasions than I'm willing to admit. They want something. I don't want them to have that something. They start with "but Mom....." and I cut them off before they can finish. I stop them from saying their peace. I am assuming they are going to nag me again about it. Sometimes, I am correct. But many times, I am not. My sassy 8-year-old once yelled back "but you didn't even listen to what I wanted to say!" She caught me trying to read minds and she was exactly right. I didn't listen. I didn't even try to listen. And that hurt her feelings. And it hurt our relationship in that moment.
Our brains are amazing at creating a narrative that serves us best. Our brain filters out the noise - anything that might distract us from what we want to see in that moment, or anything that contradicts what we think we know to be true. It is emotional survival. It is human nature. But it is dangerous. It is a dangerous endeavor to assume that what we know is true for all, or that what we think others are thinking is true. How can we possibly know what others are thinking unless we ask?
We don't know what another person is going to say until they say it. We don't know how another person feels unless we ask. We don't know how a conversation is going to play out until we start it. And any predetermined opinions about it prevent the realization of honest, constructive, and open dialogue. We are definitely not actively listening when we are busy generating thoughts about what is inside the brain of another.
If communicating well is our goal then we need to practice not reading minds. We need to stay open to listening, hearing, understanding and valuing the unique perspectives of the other. We need to stay vigilant about keeping our biases and beliefs in check so that we can explain them after we have listened. We all have a story. When we stop reading minds, we might have an opportunity to tell it.