There are a lot of ways our brains toy with us and create misunderstandings and lapses in judgment. One of the ways that I find most insidious in both myself and in those I coach and advise, is the tendency to implicitly believe we are telepathic. No, I’m not suggesting that I think I can actually read minds – or that you think you do! But we are all guilty of drawing conclusions about the mental states of other people exactly as though we were reading their minds.
We hear this kind of faulty reasoning constantly in the political and public sphere. Politicians regularly accuse their opponents or opposition of having very specific motivations, intentions and goals based on their actions, their expressions or even such minutiae as whether they shake hands weakly or strongly, turn away or face someone, speak loudly or softly and so forth. And in our own lives and work, we do the same kind of thing. An acquaintance fails to notice us and say hello at an event and we believe we have been deliberately snubbed; that the person wanted to offend us or avoid us. Or as we speak to someone we watch their facial expressions and conclude they are angry, sad, or annoyed.
Every time we draw such a conclusion we have assumed that we know what someone else’s internal state is – and that is simply unknowable to us. We are aware of our uncertainty when we look at an infant. Since the infant can’t talk, new parents try to decipher their needs and wants from facial expressions, or crying. But every new parent will tell you that they really have no idea what the baby wants when it cries. How could they know? It is simply not knowable. So, parents test their hypotheses by trying different approaches to making a baby stop crying.
As adults, we do not have that humility about our judgments. We are usually very certain of the conclusions we draw. If you start to focus on your own internal monologue you can catch yourself doing it. You are relaying a story of an interaction and you say “he got angry”, or “she wanted to undermine me”, or “I was a hit at that party – everyone loved my joke”. In each of those assessments the speaker has assumed some unknowable knowledge about someone else’s feelings, beliefs or intentions. But our certainty is often misplaced – even when we think our evidence is rock solid! Some people look like they’re frowning when they are simply listening intently or concentrating. Some people have louder voices than others and speak loudly when they get excited – as opposed to “screaming at us” as we might assume. There are myriad possible explanations in every interaction, and our judgments are therefore less accurate than we believe.
The flip side of this fallibility is that we need to be able to trust our assessments about the non-verbal cues we pick up from others. It’s a massive part of successful communication. After all, communication would break down (or at least slow down) if we had to get verbal confirmation for every conclusion we draw. So I’m not suggesting that you stop making judgments – or that it would even be possible to do so. But there is a middle ground.
Like most new skills, the ability to invest less certainty in our judgments of other peoples’ states begins with getting conscious that we’re even doing it. The best place to look is to relationships and interactions that you have judged as being negative. As an exercise, begin to take note when you have a thought about another person that upsets you or casts them in a negative light. It will often be a descriptive comment (out loud or in your mind) about what someone meant, intended, thought – or about why someone did or didn’t do something. Once you gain some skill at noticing that you are doing it, begin to cast some deliberate doubt on your assessments. If you can alter your relationship to your judgments from certain to “lightly held” you open the door to alternative interpretations and to being patient enough to learn more. Many the business relationship or romance would be saved by holding tenuously to our judgments about our peers’, friends’ and colleagues’ intents – and allowing for our own fallibility. If you doubt you are fallible, consider how many times you have felt misjudged or misunderstood. In many of those cases, had the other party been less certain and simply asked you, the mess would never have happened and the relationship might have been stronger for it. Consider how many dead relationships we could all revive if we could just learn that “they didn’t mean it that way at all!” Try allowing for that possibility and see what happens!