Have you ever “unfriended” someone on Facebook because you knew their latest status update was directed at you?
Did you take this action without talking to them to see whether or not it really was about you?
Have you ever assumed that you knew why a person was saying the things to you that they were saying, as if you could read their mind?
Have you ever inserted your own emotional interpretation to an email as you read it?
I have too! This article is about this strange and self granted (or assumed) superpower.
A huge barrier in communication as well as personal safety is the habit people have of thinking that they know what another person is thinking. Or that they know a persons motivations, prejudices or unspoken beliefs.
You might be able to guess what someone else is thinking and you just might even be right sometimes. But you do not have superpowers. One of the amazing ways that our brains work is to detect patterns and make predictions. The human species might not be around at all today if we were unable to detect these patterns and make some reasonable predictions. This is still a useful skill in many ways. We have these voices in our heads that we call “I” and “myself”. These are those voices that tell us, “he hates me” and “she is acting that way because…”. These are the same voices that get us into trouble with their lines like, “he is about to attack me” and the alcohol induced, “I bet I could whup him!”
These voices speak to all of us, but some people are able to rationalize better than others. Some people are so good at rational thinking that they completely discount what these voices tell them. But others…not so much. Nevertheless, a good place to start in understanding how to deal with this process is to see that everyone does it. Some people give less credence to these voices (we need more of this skill), and some people have the great ability to ignore the voices altogether, but seeing that everyone has this issue makes being understanding a little bit easier.
When someone is saying something you disagree with, and your mind is stuck in a thought that “They must be racist” or “they hate me”, that is the mental process that I am talking about here.
When you assume that you know what someone else is thinking, or what their motivation for action is, you are making a baseless assumption. You can get that sense, that vibe from someone, and then take the reasonable step and talk to the person.
“Well, Wallace, I am sure you might say that is a good idea, but they are going to continue to tell me what they think I want to hear.”
Oops…there is that voice again; overstepping its own limits and making assumptions about my assumptions.
We all provide our own narrative for everything all day, every day. The narrative that goes on in my head is usually done in the voice of Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from HBOs Game of Thrones). But, I digress.
Whether or not the narrative we have playing in our head is true; we believe it and act accordingly.
This is problematic in two ways:
One, we fail in our efforts to communicate with the other person. When we are so sure that we know the answer, why would we bother listening to the other person? Seriously – if I know what you are really thinking; anything you say that runs contrary to what I am assuming is only going to offer further evidence to me of the solidity of my position. Denials will lead me to believe that you are lying. Apologies and claims that I am misunderstanding you will allow me to believe I busted you and that you are being evasive or defensive or cagey.
And two, we place ourselves in a less than safe circumstance When we know we are right, we ignore other points of view, and are sometimes self-righteous as we do so. This can make us less safe than we would be otherwise. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I am sure that self-righteous and confrontational attitudes get people in more trouble than understanding and peaceful attitudes.
Lack of Communication as Culture
It is very common in our modern time for people to listen in order to reply, as opposed to listening in order to understand. A part of the problem is, at least it would seem, to be cultural. Social media plays a role in our current less-than-social society.
Our current society seems to be set to the idea of taking soundbites as facts, and accepting popular labels for those who disagree as solid truths.
I don’t care what issue you choose, or what side you are on, there are standard accepted practices for debate and argument. For example, ad hominem attacks are considered poor form and are done when your own argument is weak or exposed as being weak by the argument of your opponent. Ad Hominem attacks are “against the man”; meaning you are attacking the person and not their argument. It is bad form, and does nothing to further your own position.
But the ad hominem is a standard behavior in our modern time. This standard is part of why I do not engage in argument on hot topic issues much anymore; it is not fun to argue with people who do not appreciate a good argument. When the other person resorts to baseless name-calling there is no point to the exercise. The game needs to be worth the candle.
The voices inside your head are, as often as not, troublemakers. They can, if you let them, convince you that you know what other people are thinking, feeling, what their motivations are, what their looks/stares/glances mean, and that you know more than they do as to how easy their life has been and what motivates them to hold to certain ideas/opinions/viewpoints and so on. This is flawed thinking, and it takes practice to begin questioning your own assumed superpowers, but it is well worth the time and work involved.