There are times when mind reading can be a very helpful communication tool. People who have been happily married for a while are often very skilled in reading each other’s minds because they have grown accustomed to each other’s patterns of thinking. Often these thinking patterns are associated with predictable patterns of behavior, readily observed. Regular, predictable patterns of behavior over a long period of time contribute to building bonds of trust that allow couples to believe the best in each other and, by extension, to read each other’s minds in a mutually beneficial way.
Note the word ‘happily‘ married.
When marital relationships are under pressure and the couple is ‘unhappily’ married, mind reading can be a deadly communication tool. Concerned that their partner may be attempting to assert power and control, one or both partners begin making negative interpretations of each other’s behavior; essentially, believing the worst in the other. When this becomes part of the mix between people, resolving conflict and working through simple disagreements can become noxious and relationally dangerous.
It is at times like this that a cognitive resetting of the assumptions we make can be helpful. Aaron Beck in his book Love is Never Enough outlines 5 Principles of the Cognitive Approach that are good to keep in mind when we become overly sensitive to what we think each other is trying to say instead of taking the time to truly understand.
- We can never really know the state of mind–the attitudes, thoughts, and feelings–of other people.
- We depend on signals, which are frequently ambiguous, to inform us about the attitudes and wishes of other people.
- We use our own coding system, which may be defective, to decipher these signals.
- Depending on our own state of mind at a particular time, we may be biased in our method of interpreting other people’s behavior, that is, how we decide.
- The degree to which we believe that we are correct in divining another persons motives and attitudes is not related to the actual accuracy of our belief.*
In our daily interactions we naturally assume that the other person understands what we are trying to say. For the most part this is fairly accurate when exchanging information or casually making observations. We often truncate our communications to save time and energy or to keep from overwhelming each other with unnecessary details. We talk in sound bites and generalities, leaving much unsaid, requiring each other to read between the lines or catch the nuances and implications. .
When communication becomes strained and difficult it is important for someone to become intentional with their listening skills, paraphrasing what the other is saying, attempting to reflect the thoughts that lie behind the words. This can be a challenge because it takes time, energy and a detachment from one’s own assumptions, expending the effort and allowing time to understand the assumptions of the other person.
Deciding that I don’t know what you mean until you believe that I understand what you are trying to say is the beginning of deep, abiding and meaningful conversation. The enemy is the time it takes to understand; the currency is the time we take to communicate that we care enough to listen.
*Beck, Aaron T. Love is Never Enough. 1988, p. 13.