Are you a mind reader?

I bet you shook your head no – and I also bet you unconsciously think that you are.

That’s because our beliefs that we intuitively know why another person acts a certain way, or says a certain thing, are so pervasive they are hardly noticeable.

We get mad at our partner for not picking up after themselves because we think it means they don’t value our shared space enough to look after it.

We get angry with our children for talking back because we think it means they don’t respect us.

We get frustrated with our boss for not providing positive feedback because we assume it means they don’t value our work.

(These are just examples of course – you can swap in your favorite psychic complaints!)

This might not be a waste of time if we could actually know what other people were thinking – but unfortunately, most of us are terrible mind readers.

Think about it: in every example above, there are at least a dozen other possible reasons for the actions taken – many of which are way more innocuous than “they don’t value me.”

So why do you jump to the worst conclusion? Because your brain resists the possibility that others can even have thoughts that do not directly mirror yours.

You can see this in action easily when someone says something to you directly that contradicts your own thought.

For example, if you have the default thought that you’re ugly and someone says to you “I think you’re beautiful,” you won’t really believe them. At worst, you think they’re lying to you to make you feel better about yourself, and at best, you think they’re confused or biased in your favor.

Or if your partner says: “I just don’t think it’s messy here.” You simply don’t believe that’s possible.

This is one of the main causes of suffering that we experience in the world. We torture ourselves with our ideas about other peoples’ thoughts and motivations.

So how can we see others more clearly?

By learning to understand other people’s models.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the “model,” it’s basically a way of describing the process by which we encounter and make meaning about the outside world – and produce results for ourselves in our own lives. (The version that I use was created by my teacher Brooke Castillo, but it reflects a process described everywhere from ancient meditation techniques to Roman philosophers to cognitive-behavioral theory.)

We have certain circumstances, or facts, in our lives.
Then we have a thought about those circumstances.
The thought produces a feeling.
We take actions because of that feeling.
These actions lead to our results in our lives.

If you’re in the Clutch and have learned how to work with this tool, you know that applying the model to our own behavior can give us the power to practice compassion toward ourselves, intentionally create feelings we’d like to have, and accomplish our goals.

But, it can also be an extremely powerful way to practice empathy and compassion toward other people.

Why? Because it helps us see beyond our own beliefs and imagine what other people might be thinking and feeling.

Let’s explore how this might be playing out in your life with an example:

I have a client who believed that her girlfriend didn’t prioritize her because her girlfriend sometimes had to cancel plans to pick up extra shifts at work.

Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (including her girlfriend’s stated belief that she *was* prioritizing her), she still didn’t believe it was true.

It wasn’t until she was able to see her own biases (by questioning what exactly “prioritizing” meant to her) and imagine her girlfriend’s point of view (that she believed she was already prioritizing the relationship by keeping most of their plans and communicating regularly, and that making money with the extra shifts had nothing to do with her feelings about the relationship) that she could see beyond her own beliefs and experience compassion for her girlfriend.

In other words, my client thought her girlfriend’s model was:

Circumstance: Boss asks me to do an extra shift
Thought: I don’t care about seeing my girlfriend so sure
Feeling: Excited
Action: Take shift, cancel plans
Result: Don’t see girlfriend and don’t care about not seeing her.

But by getting coaching on it and questioning her assumptions, my client was able to see that another totally plausible – and likely MORE plausible – model was:

Circumstance: Boss asks me to do an extra shift
Thought: I am bummed I have to cancel on my girlfriend but making more money will benefit us both.
Feeling: Committed
Action: Take shift, cancel plans
Result: Benefit (and prioritize) relationship from her point of view. 

Without exploring her girlfriend’s model, my client would still be stuck with the painful thought that her partner didn’t prioritize her.

Playing around with other people’s models is one of the best ways I know to get out of your own ego and limited perspective, and to see what kind of emotional experience someone else may be having based on their thoughts.

It works for people in your life you want to think well of, and it also works for people you have a lot of negative thoughts about.

You assume someone doesn’t talk to you at lunch because they don’t like you – but what if they’re afraid you won’t like them?

You assume your coworker talks over you in meetings because they don’t value your opinion – but what if they’re excited to share an idea with you or anxious that you’ll think they’re dumb if they don’t speak up?

Now, you could be wrong. Your coworker could be thinking “her voice doesn’t matter” every time they interrupt you.

But so what? You can’t see into their brain either way, and believing they are coming from a more neutral place will help you feel compassion and gratitude in turn. There’s no downside to that. Believing they are out to get you isn’t producing feelings or actions you like either.

Getting into the habit of exploring options for other people’s models will start to shift your belief that you know the absolute truth of what other people are thinking, and that all of their thoughts are motivated by a negative opinion of you.

I think this is what true empathy means: compassionate, non-ego-driven comprehension. It’s when we can see other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions play out, and we can feel compassion for them without our interpretation getting in the way.

So the next time you feel “triggered” by someone else or don’t like how they are acting, think about what your assumptions about their behavior are. And then try brainstorming what other models they might be living in.

Don’t assume that your thought is the only thought they could be having. Challenge yourself to see beyond your initial “mind reading.”

The better you get at this skill, the less personally you’ll take other people’s actions and the more freedom you’ll experience in your own mind and your own life.

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