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Read Books, Not Minds

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"The main problem with this type of thinking is that we are making assumptions that are often inaccurate."
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Expecting Others to Read Your Mind

Frequently people become upset because they have an expectation of someone and that person did not fulfill the expectation. However, they did not voice the expectation, and instead, became angry that the person didn't do what they wanted. This can be as simple as expecting another driver to know that he/she should let you merge (when you don't signal). "She could see the construction and my lane ending. Should have known that I needed to get over and slowed down." Or, as occurs often, it could be expecting a certain response from a spouse, "He could see that I was upset. He should of canceled his meeting and talked to me."

As you may realize, this type of thinking is closely related to the "should" thinking which is an expectation or demand. The main difference is that the mind-reading expectation is a specific demand that the other person should know what you're thinking or what you expect without having to tell him or her.

The main problem with this type of thinking is that we are making assumptions that are often inaccurate. We assume that the other person thinks exactly like us or that they should think the way we do, and therefore, arrive at the same conclusion.

And why should that be true? We all grow up with different experiences, different families, different communities, different cultures. As a result, we are more likely to take differently than we are likely to think the same. For instance, one person may grow up in a family where they get quiet time if they're upset whereas another person's family gives comfort and reassurance when distressed. How could two people from these two families know what each other needs if those needs are not communicated?

Therefore, this type of thinking leads to not getting what you want when you could have if only your needs had been communicated. The individual may interpret the lack of responsiveness as rejection or even a deliberate attempt to hurt when nothing of the sort was intended.

For instance, such misunderstandings can be seen with flirting. Why do people flirt? Because they want to communicate interest while reducing the risk of rejection by not being too obvious. This may be fine on the dating scene where it is expected behavior (although even then much miscommunication occurs). However, flirting behavior can become especially problematic when a person in a relationship expects their partner to pick up on these nonverbal cues when the setting isn't providing any clues. For example, a woman trying to be romantic when her husband is watching football.

Believing That You Can Read Others' Minds

I used to believe "I'm a woman--I'm intuitive. I'm a psychologist--I'm trained. I've been with my husband many years--I know what he's thinking." However, I've been proved wrong so many times I finally gave up. We really can't know what someone else is thinking unless they tell us.

Frequently, mind-reading others occurs when a person is trying to interpret someone's non-verbal cues. For example, "She kept looking away, she must have thought I was boring." The problem with this thinking is that there may be other interpretations of the same behavior. In this example, perhaps she was watching for someone she was expecting, or maybe she had something in her eye, or maybe she was shy, or... I could continue, but you understand my point.

In fact, a good way to challenge this type of thinking is to see if you can create even one believable alternative explanation for the behavior. If you can, you are possibly wrong. A client and I once filled up a large marker board brain-storming why someone may have treated him a certain way. Afterwards, he was able to recognize that the person may not have been trying to hurt him.

Challenging Mind-Reading

1) Recognition of Assumptions. The first step to challenging mind-reading is to recognize that you are making an assumption. This may even include when you've told someone something previously. You are still making an assumption: that he or she still remembers. "I told her I was a vegetarian and yet she invited me to Thanksgiving dinner and tried to serve me turkey."

2) Determine Alternative Explanations. The next step is to determine other possible assumptions or explanations could be accurate. As I indicated previously, brain-storm by yourself or with someone to develop other explanations. In addition, if available, consider the other person's explanation of his or her behavior. Too often people will dismiss the other person's explanation in favor of their own mind-reading: "He said he was just tired, but I know he was mad at me."

3) Repetition. Finally, remind yourself that you are mind-reading and could be wrong. The only way you can know with certainty is through direct communication. Therefore, keep repeating this understanding to yourself until you believe it.

4) Cognitive Diary. It is often useful to write down the situations in which you are mind-reading. This helps you to more clearly think through the process and challenge the thinking.



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