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No More Mind Reading

"Cognitive distortions: Mind reading - Inferring a person's possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from their behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst suspected case without asking the person." Dr. Aaron Beck, psychiatrist

Our initial, brief encounter made my heart soar.

“How was the drive up the hill for you in that big moving truck?” I asked.

Jose and Alejandro’s eyes widened. “Scary, I was sitting on the outside, he was driving, I kept looking off the edge.” We all laughed.

“How do you get up that hill in the winter? Like what did you do last year when the snow was three feet deep?” they asked.

John and I explained that the snow was four feet deep up here where we live! “We got stuck and couldn’t get up the hill. Because we had been out of town, our snowplow was at the top of the hill and we were at the bottom.”

“What did you do?” They asked.

“Well, our neighbors let us sleep at their house, even fed us,” I explained. “Then some other people we didn’t even know came up and helped us with their snow blowers. Wasn’t it amazing how everyone came together and helped each other during that big snow time?”

The young men vigorously shook their heads and shared their own stories of people helping each other in their neighborhoods as well. The whole, beautiful episode probably lasted less than five minutes. But the deal was sealed.

During that time my heart warmed, I smiled and laughed. In fact, I had to push back inexplicable tears of joy. I loved these young guys.

How did this connection happen so quickly? Maybe it was the book I was reading right before they came. Belonging by Geoffrey Cohen. It got hold of me.

The part I was reading was about how we make up all sorts of stories, particularly threatening stories, about each other. Often we totally misread facial and body cues. One of the ways we lower the feeling of threat is to stick with “our own kind.” Not engage each other.

When I was teaching, it perplexed me that affinity groups would often sit together in the lunchroom. The kids of color at one table. “Jocks” as they called themselves at another table. “Preppies” at another. “Goths” at another.

I encouraged the students to mix it up. They rarely, no, they NEVER did. Why?

I remember a friend of ours, Jose, asking the same question when he looked around at people in the church fellowship room. Same ones always sitting together. He would shake his head. “Why are people so afraid of each other?” he’d ask.

Cohen offers research on this way we tend to naturally segregate ourselves. His mentor sent him to the University of Michigan to explore why black and white students tended to sit apart in the dining halls – as was true then and now on most college campuses.

The situation was explained well by one interviewee. “We spend the whole day interacting with white folks. And after a while we just get tired.”

When Cohen probed further, asking if that was because their white peers were being racist, he found that was not generally the issue. Rather it was that the Black students just didn’t know what the white students were thinking of them, so they felt they had to keep their armor up. It was exhausting.

Meanwhile, according to Cohen, the white students believed the Black students just didn’t want to sit with them, didn't like them, so they were just respecting their preference.

Many lessons could be derived from this research. The message Cohen was particularly trying to drive home was that we are not very good at mind-reading, face reading. Eye reading. Body reading. Not very good at any of it.

We make up stories. Often, they are wrong. Especially we can be way off base in our culturally conditioned assumptions. But we never question ourselves. We assume we've got it right.

We can get it wrong even with people we are close to. Our children. Our significant others.

Consider the conversation between Elaine and Roger which Cohen recounts. It’s from an article by Dave Barry.

Elaine talking to herself about Roger: “He’s upset. I can see it on his face. Maybe he wants more from our relationship, more intimacy, more commitment; maybe he has sensed – even before I sensed it—that I was feeling some reservations. Yes, I bet that’s it.”

Roger talking to himself: “And I’m gonna have them look at the transmission again. I don’t care what those morons say, it’s still not shifting right.”

After much back and forth in her own head, Elaine says out loud, “It’s just that I need some time.”

There is a 15 second pause as Roger is startled out of his musing. Roger is desperately thinking as fast as he can. He’s trying to figure out a safe response. Finally, he comes up with something he thinks will work. “Yes,” he says.

If you are laughing to yourself about this sideward encounter (I could recount dozens of my own), my guess is that you have been involved in a relationship yourself. Perhaps you found out over time or through a process of investigation, that you are often wrong about what the other person was thinking and feeling.

This parallels findings presented in a new neuroscience book by Chantel Prat’s, The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain is Different and How to Understand Yours. The idea is that are brains are different.

We process things differently. We have different experiences which wire us up differently.

Both Cohen and Prat’s bottom line is the same in this regard. Don’t think you understand others and don’t think they understand you. Don’t think you can accurately empathize by “putting yourself in their shoes.”

Instead, we are encouraged to ask questions. Make our own intentions and needs clear. Notice the stories we are making up in our head. The jumping to conclusions without much evidence.

I’ll throw this one in. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. If we can’t stop being a mental storyteller, at least we can experiment with making the story we tell about others more generous.

We can start with the assumption that the other is a decent, rather than nefarious, human being. Others’ behavior can be explained, for example, more benignly, as “being tired” rather than “they don’t like us.” It’s called “making generous assumptions.”

After reading Belonging, I wanted to make sure my signals were clear when Jose and Alejandro came in the door. I reached out my hand. I smiled. I asked a question. I wanted to do my best to ensure that they did not have to expend mental energy trying to figure out if they were accepted, liked, safe.

It was an unexpected gift to feel so very connected to them and hugely elevated so quickly afterwards.

We can take these ideas out into the world. At this very minute I am making up very ungenerous stories about others along many dimensions, particularly politics.

I forget how we all helped each other out – slept at each other’s houses, fed each other, dug each other out during the big snow. We were all just neighbors helping neighbors. We all belonged. We were a community caring for each other.

I could do a lot better by others and myself. I could experiment with mixing it up. Asking sincere questions. Assuming that others are generally decent human beings with their own unique way of processing. People with their own needs, their own assumptions, their own life experiences.

And… let me have a bit of compassion toward us humans. In these studies that Cohen reports, the ones where students were sitting with the same folks all the time, often each side expressed a desire to connect.

What got in the way? It was not only assumptions and mistaken mind-reading. It was also just anxiety in general.

According to Cohen, typically, students could stand alone in the dining hall, holding their trays for no more than five seconds. Then anxiety set in. To get rid of their discomfort, they madly ducked into a space with people they knew.

It’s good to know what we are dealing with if we want open the door to knowing beautiful people like Jose and Alejandro. Enjoy all those feel-good chemicals surging through our bodies, healing us, and building trusting communities.

After writing this, I realize there is a place where I can go to mix it up today. A group of diverse women who meets each Friday for brunch at the Outpost. All comers of all stripes including liberals and conservatives sit around a big table. Sometimes they have so many, two tables are pushed together. They have even invited the men. My husband is still too scared to join, but the day may come.

Summing it up. How might we better understand others by asking questions rather than leaning on mistaken attempts toward mind-reading and mis-guided empathy? How might we be clearer in sending positive signals and articulating our own needs to others? When we don’t have much to go on, how might we make up a generous rather than nefarious story until proven otherwise? And how might we compassionately deal with our own anxiety when attempting to connect with others we don’t know…and where could we go today to mix it up… keep moving together toward the Good Life?


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