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Knowing what others think and feel: you don’t Oct 15

Him: “My boss doesn’t like me.

Me: “How do you know?

Him: “I know it. I can tell.

Me: “Really? How?

Him: “I just can. It’s a gut feeling.

Me: “So you’re a mind reader now…

It amazes me how confident people are when it comes to telling what other people are thinking and feeling from subtle behavioral cues. Especially if it’s about them, and it’s negative. Even the people who otherwise are not very confident.

I used to do this. When it came to other people, I prided myself on being a very good “mind reader”. Over time, I changed my perspective about that. Sure, there are cues, there are non-verbal signals, there are readable emotions. But the bottom line: mind reading involves a lot of guess work passing as skill.

Why do we generally trust our ideas about what others think and feel so much? Personally, I blame it a lot on trusting to much our feelings/ intuition. We say to ourselves “This person doesn’t like me” or “This person thinks I’m an idiot” and we get a feeling of certainty associated with that thought, a subjective validation. Then we say to ourselves “I know it!

No you don’t! Your intuition about this kind of stuff can only be trusted if it’s very well in tune with the objective reality around you. Which most probably, it’s not. Because more probably, your intuition filters your judgments through a couple of deep routed irrational beliefs such as:

  • People don’t like me.
  • I’m not good enough.
  • People are bad and mean.

So what comes out as your intuition about other people’s thoughts and feelings is based more on what’s inside than on what’s inside: your beliefs, your need for certainty and for an excuse regarding various aspects. Intuition can be a powerful thing to have and to use, but only if it’s not “polluted”.

The human psychic is a complex system of thoughts, wants and feelings, which manifest externally in a complex system of behaviors and subtle cues. Reading them accurately is just as complicated. This is why I’m a skeptic when it comes to good “mind reading” skills. The fact of the matter is, there are exactly 3524 things a person might be thinking or feeling in a certain situation, half of which have nothing to do with you.

So next time, instead of guessing what someone is thinking or feeling, try letting go of the need for certainty and admitting you simply don’t know. Or better yet, just ask her. You may actually get an honest answer.

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