Reality Check: The Mind Reader

Would you like to read minds? When someone looks you in the eye and tells you a tale, do you wonder, “What are they really thinking?”
On the one hand, the ability to read minds sounds great. You’d never be lied to (or at least, you’d know when it happens.)There would be no secrets. You’d know what your children, your boss, your teacher and your friends really think. Not to mention your spouse!
That brings us to a downside of mind-reading—there’d be no secrets. That’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Do we really want to know what people are thinking at all times?
There’s also the inconvenient possibility that if we could suddenly read minds, it’s likely that others could read our minds! It’s easy to imagine situations where, at least for me, that would be awkward, indeed.
We know that communication isn’t limited to the words we speak. Whether it’s conscious or not, we’re influenced by how someone speaks to us as much as by what they say.
We pay attention to facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and so on. A simple gesture, a sharp tone, a closed posture, a smirk—those non-verbal cues can lead us to believe that we can detect the “real” truth behind what’s being said.
When someone we care for is angry, or happy, or down in the dumps, it’s helpful if we can figure that out without being told. We can use that understanding and interact with empathy.
However, underlying emotions are not necessarily clear. For example, I may make a deliberate effort to suppress an emotion, such as, “I’m really unhappy with Jen right now, but I’m not going to show it.”
This choice has several possible consequences.
A helpful consequence is that it gives me time to cool off and not make the situation worse. An unhelpful consequence is that it deprives Jen of a valuable piece of information—I am unhappy with her. If she doesn’t know, then it’s unlikely she’ll try to address it.
Now consider that some folks who want to be perceived in a certain way can use their posture, tone and gestures to appear to be just that.
Perhaps someone wants to be perceived as friendly and caring. Or maybe they’d rather be seen as authoritative and competent. Either way, there are facial expressions, tones, and gestures that go along with a specific persona.
My perception is that many public figures practice their communication skills with that end in mind. Or perhaps I’m just caught up in election season skepticism.
That’s not to imply that there is anything wrong or unethical with presenting yourself in a certain way. In fact, I encourage assertive communication, which doesn’t come naturally to many. It can take practice to be able to look someone directly in the eye and say your piece without being either aggressive or passive.
So, our mind-reading “skills” are a mixed blessing, because those skills are not fool-proof. Whether it’s someone we know or a stranger, a salesperson, or a politician, some folks attempt to present themselves as exactly what we want to see. It’s manipulative and not very nice, but it happens.
Communication can be hard. My suggestion is simply to be on guard about our illusions of mind-reading. Remain mindful that our perceptions are not always correct.
A principle I’ve found helpful is the classic, “actions speak louder than words.” Watch what people do; pay less attention to what they say.
And if in doubt, ask for clarification. If Jen says to me, “You seem unhappy with me. Are you?” I’m more likely to respond truthfully.
With so many challenges, it’s remarkable that we communicate as well as we do. How well do you read minds, do you think?

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