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Mind Reading: A More Dangerous Communication Habit Than You Realize

mind reading

No matter how much you study negotiation or communication tactics or how many hours you practice, you are still vulnerable to destroying negotiation if you fall prey to common thinking traps. The most common thinking trap of them all? Mind reading. 

Wait, what are “thinking traps?”

Thinking traps are thought patterns that open the door to anxiety. We all fall into thinking traps at one point or another. Once triggered, it’s all too easy to fall into a downward spiral of negative assumptions, leading you to distrust your counterpart and to get into the flight-fight-freeze state. It then becomes nearly impossible to listen or think collaboratively because you are physically getting ready for battle.  The crazy part is, most people don’t realize they’ve fallen into one of these traps and they mistake their assumptions for reality and is likely the root cause for negotiations going sideways and falling apart. 

Why Mind Reading Seems Like a Good Habit

Our brains are prediction machines. Our brain’s number one priority is to make sure we survive. Over the course of human history that means constantly surveying our surroundings for threats to our survival. Are there predators lurking in the bushes? Is that person here to help us or are they here to conquer our tribe? Even in modern times, we have to be alert to dangers such as the politics at work, snake oil sales people, and sadly, sometimes even abusers at home. Our brains err on the side of negativity because it’s better to be safe than sorry. Better not to trust someone just in case than to blindly trust someone and get burned. 

This tendency helped us survive… however it will not help us thrive. It may protect you from potentially bad situations, but what about all the situations that were not bad? What about the situations that were actually opportunities?

Why Mind Reading is a Trap

While science has proved the existence of telepathy, we’re still a long way off as a species to reliably use it in normal conversations.  Yet,  that doesn’t stop us from believing we just *know* what other people are thinking, or what they really meant. Sure of course, only 7% of communication is verbal, but there is no universal non-verbal language that everyone agrees upon.

For example, once I ran into a friend at a cafe and was excited to see him and said with a big smile, “Hey! So good to see you!” 

He cracked a half smile and looked away. I thought his reaction meant that he was upset with me, or he wasn’t happy to run into me. So I said, “I’m sorry, I’ll see you around.” And started to walk away thinking he was kind of a jerk for smirking at me like that.

And then he said, “No… I’m sorry.  I’m going through this divorce, and things are rough. A lot on my mind.” 

I read into his reaction. In some circumstances, yes, people look away from annoying people. Sure he was not happy, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t happy to see me. 

The problem with mind reading is that when people assume what the other person thinks, they tend not to ask to make sure. Humans have a negative bias and tend to be self-centered. Because of that, most people tend to assume the other person thinks something negatively about them. I did this when I assumed my friend didn’t like me when in fact, he was having a rough day.

What to Do When You Catch Yourself Mind Reading

One way to make sure you’re not jumping to conclusions is to confirm your assumptions by summarizing what your counterpart says, and to ask if you have that right. 

“From what I understand, you’re saying….” 

If you think they are withholding anything from you, you can tell them what you think by labeling their emotions, and ask them an open ended question.

“You seem hesitant. What are your concerns?”

If you still don’t think they are being straight with you. Try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there are other reasons for how they are behaving. It could be as simple as them being hungry or tired, or maybe they too are going through a rough patch and that’s okay, it’s probably none of your business. Just don’t fall into the mind reading trap.

When you don’t get a satisfactory response

Giving someone who has exhibited “bad” behavior the benefit of the doubt is hard to do. Especially If the other person doesn’t want to be straight with you after you have tried to clarify what they did. You can try to deescalate negative emotions, but you cannot force someone to share their underlying motivations, so the only option is to accept their response.

Sometimes you just have to move on from a topic, whether or not you have gotten a satisfactory response. In this case, you have to accept reality. 

Accepting someone’s behavior does not mean you agree with it. 

Accepting someone’s behavior just means you accept their behavior as the current reality, without judgement and without reading into it. With the example of my friend at the cafe:

With judgement: I thought that guy was my friend, he won’t talk to me… he’s a jerk.

Without judgement: I saw my friend at the cafe, he didn’t seem like he wanted to talk.

You can base your decisions about what to do in the future based on the current reality. If my friend didn’t want to talk that one time it would be different if that same friend never wanted to talk and repeatedly seemed unhappy to see me. I would have to then make the decision if I wanted to call someone a friend if they repeatedly seemed distant and didn’t want to talk about it.

Acceptance is Key to Stop Mind Reading

When you try to read people’s minds, you craft a story about why someone behaved a certain way. This is speculation and you cannot confuse this with fact. The real fact is that you don’t know the reasons behind their behavior. Accept this as fact and try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe one day it will be clear, but that doesn’t change the reality of the here and now. The only thing you have control over is your own perception, and crafting a story not only takes energy away from the things you can control, like what you can do next.

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