Think of the last time you felt frustrated in a relationship, personal or professional. Like when you created a whole argument in your head without ever addressing the other person: “I have a lot going on a work right now, and he should know I don’t need this kind of conflict from him!”
Chances are, you were frustrated because what that person did ran counter to what you wanted or expected, or vice versa. This is what psychologists term “mind reading”—a habitual thinking pattern characterized by expecting others to know what you’re thinking without having to tell them, or expecting to know what others are thinking without them telling you.
“Mind reading is the source of much unnecessary frustration and conflict in our relationships,” says Jonathan Pritchard. And he would know: As a professional mentalist and author of Think Like a Mind Reader, Pritchard speaks all over the world on the psychology of business while wowing crowds by making them think that he is, in fact, reading their minds.
So, what does a professional mind reader want you to know about mind reading?
It is automatic…
“We mess up by drawing conclusions about a current situation based on previous events that are similar, but not exactly the same. We do it to save energy,” Pritchard explains. “Scientific American reports that our brain requires 20 percent of our resting metabolic rate, so it has to conserve power somewhere. It does this by taking a mental shortcut based on our past experiences, and we often end up making incorrect assumptions as a result.” We run into trouble when we base our behavior on these assumptions without ever explicitly communicating what we think, believe, or need.
….but also totally avoidable.
The antidote for mind reading? Clear communication. As Pritchard says, “It’s dangerous to assume you know what someone means. Most people simply want to feel heard. When you jump to conclusions without truly listening or talking to them, you’re actually ignoring what they’re trying to tell you, which leads to frustration.” Here are three things he suggests you do to avoid that frustration—and stop conflict before it starts:
1. Always ask more questions. The instant you think you know what’s happening is the moment communication breaks down. Ask yourself, “What am I missing here? What assumptions am I making? Could there be another explanation for this situation?” Being an expert communicator is less about what you say and more about working towards understanding the other person clearly.
2. Make sure you’re on the same page. You can test your understanding of the other person’s position by restating their viewpoint in your own words. If they agree, then you can move forward. Pritchard compares it to going on a road trip with someone. “You have to get them in the car before you take off! Jumping to conclusions is just like driving past the other person at 70 miles an hour. Slow down, get them on board, and then move forward—together.”
3. Be aware of the story you’re telling yourself. We make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories about what events mean, whether it’s a coworker leaving you off an email or a friend not inviting you to a party. “You’re operating on limited information,” Pritchard says, “So your imagination fills in the rest—which, by the way, is how I’m able to make people think I’m reading their minds! You then make your decisions based on this story (‘She did that on purpose!’) instead of engaging with the other person.”
Recognize that you don’t have all the facts about their motivations, intentions, or situation—and make an effort to gather information before reacting. The real magic isn’t in jumping to the right conclusions, but thinking past your assumptions and focusing on real connections instead.
Terri Trespicio is a New York–based lifestyle writer. For nearly a decade, she served as a senior editor and radio host at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, XOJane, Marie Claire, Prevention, MindBodyGreen, and DailyWorth. Find her on Twitter @TerriT