Jenni Ogden Ph.D.

Trouble in Mind

Reading Minds Is a Skill We All Need to Work On

It is fun and it will improve your communication.

Posted Oct 20, 2017

From America's Got Talent, Colin McCloud, Creative Commons
Source: From America's Got Talent, Colin McCloud, Creative Commons

The other night I watched a TV item on Colin Cloud, the Scottish forensic profiler and "mind reader" currently touring New Zealand. Of course, he can’t read minds and doesn’t claim to, but he can guess what you are thinking by close and experienced observation of subtle changes in your facial expression, especially in your eyes, and from your body language. He explains that it is important to relax the person who has agreed to participate in his demonstrations, because that is when we reveal what we are really thinking and feeling in spite of what we might say. (See this video from America’s Got Talent.)

Some people are easier to read than others. The term poker face is often applied to people who can hide their feelings by consciously holding their face still. Various studies have suggested that in population samples, only about 7% of our communication is based on the words we exchange. Our voice tone contributes about 38% and a massive 55% comes from body language and facial expression. Clinical psychologists and therapists should be in the upper skill range of understanding body language. They will be better at their job if they are good at reading facial expressions and body language. This enables them to be more empathetic and to gently encourage the client—who is perhaps trying to be ‘strong’ by not revealing how very distressed they are over a particular issue—to allow themselves to express their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Parents who know their children intimately often become very skilled at knowing when they are feeling depressed or upset in spite of a brave or defiant front. The better the parent is at this, the less likely it will be that their child feels misunderstood. It is usually easy to understand what our toddler is feeling, as although by the age of two or three most children have a concept that other people are thinking different thoughts than they are (i.e., they are developing a ‘theory of mind’), they have not yet developed the frontal-lobe control mechanisms to allow them to suppress tantrums when they don’t get their own way. A baby or toddler’s giggling is infectious because it is so genuine. Teenagers are often difficult for a parent to read perhaps because it is hard for a parent to keep abreast of the ways their teens change as they become more influenced by their changing hormones and their social world (including social media) outside their own family. As they change, they also become more adept at hiding their true feelings, which is exacerbated when the teens themselves find their changing feelings confusing.

If we watch someone we have never seen before show genuine emotion (perhaps when being interviewed on TV about their child who is dying of cancer) then we might find our own eyes welling up. Genuine emotion reaches out and touches us. Books and movies that connect with our own emotions will be more successful than those that don’t.

In every relationship we have, being sensitive to body language and learning how to read it with some accuracy, will enhance your relationships. This includes everything from sexual relationships, to maintaining good friendships, to meeting new people, to job interviews. Some people seem to possess a natural ability at reading other people, often included in the term “Emotional IQ," and others, including people on the Autism Spectrum, can be very poor at this. So clearly there is a biological component or "potential." But reading body language can definitely be learned by most of us, and we can all improve our skills. Most of us will never get as good as Colin Cloud, and this is because he has spent thousands of hours practicing!  

On the easy side of understanding what another person is feeling is the interpretation of simple body language. For example, a person sitting with their head in their hands might be hypothesized to be feeling sad, or distressed (or tired). A common stance is one taken when a person crosses his (or her) arms when in a discussion, suggesting perhaps he is closed to having his opinion changed. (To test your ability to read simple body language, visit this website.)

But it is the more subtle facial expressions that are both harder to read and more helpful if you want to communicate better with your partner, child or client. The eyes are the most expressive part of the face and can convey a myriad of feelings. (To test your ability to read the eyes, visit this website.)

Of course as part of good communication we must also be aware that we may be wrong, and find a respectful and positive way to check whether our guesses are right. There is no way we can actually read another person’s mind.

What about your own body language and facial expressions? Are you aware of how you are sitting in a job interview? Are you jiggling your legs, shifting in your seat, pulling your skirt over your knees? What inner thoughts are you are expressing on your face? In some situations you definitely don’t want to reveal your true thoughts—you want to appear calm and confident rather than nervous in a job interview, for example—but in important equal relationships and when discussing important issues, revealing your true feelings and thoughts are likely to be one of the best ways to permit your companion to open up and reveal their true thoughts and feelings in their body and face. Situations in which the relationship isn’t equal may be different. For example, a therapist may not want to reveal to her client that she is feeling very distressed by her client’s stories of being abused, because it pushes buttons related to her own past abuse. Her role is to be there for her client, not for her client to support her.

Our role as good communicators is thus one of judgement (is it appropriate?) as well as openness (am I being genuine?) in how we express ourselves.

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