As human beings we have the incredible ability to infer what other people are thinking. This ability is one of the things that enable us to communicate and work together to achieve great things. However, there is a darker side to this ability. When unbalanced, our ability to infer becomes a “cognitive distortion,” or more simply, way of thinking that twists reality. This way of distorted thinking is often called mind reading, and it can create all kinds of trouble and strife if left unchecked.
What you (think) you know can hurt you
You may have heard the story about the Navy Captain and the Lighthouse. The (abbreviated version) of the story goes that a Navy battleship is cruising through the ocean close to shore. The lookouts see a light on the horizon, and the radar shows that the battleship and the other ship (who’s light the lookout sees) are on a collision course. The Captain of the battleship radios the other ship, identifying himself as a mighty battleship, and tells him to change course. The other ship radios back to the battleship Captain, telling him to change course. The Captain, now annoyed, radios back again demanding in a stern tone that he must change course or risk being destroyed! He is, after all, the Captain of a mighty battleship! Scourge of the seas! There is a pause… then the radio crackles… and the captain of the other ship radios back and informs the Navy Captain , in a calm voice, that he cannot change course because he is a lighthouse.
One can only imagine the mind reading that was going on in this situation. As a former Navy officer myself I know how dangerous a situation like this can be… running aground at high speed is never a good thing!
The message in this story is pretty clear: don’t assume. If you are having a disagreement, or are negotiating with somebody else, it is often best to clarify your understanding of their position. Actually, it’s good communication practice to regularly clarify understanding in any conversation, but especially when emotions are involved.
Mind reading can lead to really bad outcomes
Notwithstanding the extreme example above, mind reading can lead to other – perhaps less tragic but very annoying – bad outcomes. For instance, let’s say a friend of yours calls you and lets you know he has just got into a great new opportunity, and he wants to tell you about it! If you are like a lot of people, your initial reaction may be skeptical or even dismissive of the idea before you even know what it is.
Even if you hear your friend out, you may ignore the information because you already have preconceived notions about the motivations or capabilities of your friend and the leaders of the new business opportunity. This could be a (financially) costly mistake. It’s probably best to hear your friend out and make a decision based less on mind reading and more on the information.
There are thousands of examples, big and small, that you could probably think where mind reading has lead to misunderstandings that have bad results. The good news is, if you can avoid prejudging other peoples’ motives, and at least subdue your assumptions about their intentions, and instead ask questions to make sure you understand the message that is being conveyed, you can avoid many of these problems.