I am not a mind reader. I can’t read your minds, can’t predict what you’re going to do next, and can’t know how you’re feeling or what you’re actively concerned about. ‘But of course,’ you say, ‘no one can do that.’
And yet that’s often the unspoken expectation in many of our relationships.
Take a minute to process that. While I’m sure everyone would agree that they themselves cannot read minds, but we often expect others to read our minds. Sure, we may disguise that desire in cliches. “If she really knew me, she would know what I think about this thing”. “I’ve raised him and lived with him for his 25 years. He should know what I want”. “We’ve been married for 10 years. He should know what makes me happy”. “We grew up together. She knows me like the back of her own hand”.
This type of thinking is not the mark of a mature adult. It is unrealistic and impractical. It typically indicates that the individual has not spent the time to learn and understand the depth of relationships and the work required to attain them, and by extension that they do not and cannot experience the richest depth relationships have to offer. More on that later.
Why we expect people to read our minds
At a young age, we were taught that when we cry, mommy and daddy know what we want and give it to us. While they may not be right on the first time, they generally get it within a few tries. This is easy when you’re a newborn - all you do is eat, sleep, and poop.
However, many of us have not progressed past that. Once we mastered language, we were never taught to rewire our actions and our expectations to incorporate advanced communication. The Good Book provides some instruction here:
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” - 1 Corinthians 13:11
To certain degrees, we have all done this. We’ve grown, we’ve developed the necessary communication skills to get by in professional and many social settings. We’ve learned to give presentations, to send and respond to party invitations, and to communicate with kids’ teachers and counselors.
And yet when it comes to communicating about our feelings, our desires, or our fears, most of us still follow the ways of childhood. We expect others to extrapolate from a small statement about putting a plate in the sink that we feel uneasy without a spotless kitchen at the end of the night. We demand perfect recall from our partner of every comment we’ve made in passing about our desires. How dare they not forget? Do they not love us or care for us?
We are not mind readers.
We desire to be known
Some of this stems from our desire to be known. As people, we need connection. We were built for relationship. We thrive in community. We need diversity. We need novelty, new inputs, and different perspectives in our lives.
This need to be known is natural, and is a great thing. Human connection is strongest and the most uplifting when we are wholly known. Collaboration is at its maximum, motivation and inspiration soar, and sparks of new ideas fly when we deeply and completely connect with someone, know, and are known by them.
But we’re also lazy.
We desire to be known without wanting to do the work required to build the type of relationships that allow us to be fully known. We have some notion that the level of connection we’re looking for should happen without our need to learn about it or to apply any effort to get it. We believe that time should be sufficient. That the simple fact of being childhood friends, of being married for a decade, or of having grown up sharing a room (and some hand-me-down clothes) should be sufficient and should automatically make us known.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way relationships in reality work. That level of connection requires one very important thing that most of us are quite poor at: being vulnerable.
Being vulnerable is a skill
When we were young, vulnerability came easily. We had few desires (eat, sleep, poop) and were quite ready to communicate (cry, wail, tantrum) them to anyone that would listen. So far so good.
But then as we grew, we developed more awareness of ourselves. We began to understand and feel embarrassment. We were taught about propriety and civility. We began to see the complex social systems around us. And we began to feel fear.
So much so that by the time we grew into our teenage years, most of us retreated into the recesses of our being, determined to avoid the embarrassment that comes from having the spotlight shone on us. Our bodies were changing - our hormones and thought processes were continually evolving, adapting to the new situations we found ourselves in. Our physical discomfort was made worse by our mental and emotional discomfort, and so we employed self preservation mechanisms.
Unfortunately, most of these mechanisms created separation and isolation. We expressed apathy towards things. We retreated to our rooms behind closed doors. We resorted to hiding behind the facade of a well-curated social media persona that we carefully crafted for ourselves.
As we reached adulthood, we came horribly unequipped and ill prepared for the type of vulnerability required to build the deep relationships that we crave. To add insult to injury we even began believing that this is simply the way things are, and that this level of arms length relationship is all that is possible and feasible as adults.
Thankfully we are wrong. It is possible to enjoy a deeper closeness than many of us grew up believing. It is possible to be in an environment and relationship where one can express themselves wholly and not be judged, and in fact be accepted, celebrated, and valued. But we must work on it. We must learn, we must experiment, we must take risks. To get the attainable amount of closeness we desire, we must develop the skill of vulnerability.
Learning to communicate
Arguably the most important skill a human being can ever develop, communication is the very core of any society, modern or ancient, and is the key to creating the environment of trust and vulnerability that we need to flourish. We must learn to skillfully communicate our needs, desires, and fears in a way that invites positive reciprocation and deepens relationship. To do that, we need to realize a few things.
- Being vulnerable is a risk. By definition, it is taking the risk to put oneself out there without defenses, with nothing but the hope that we will not be attacked while our guard is down. But there is great reward as well. If we put ourselves out there, and the other party reciprocates and instead of slamming us nurtures and loves us, our lack of defenses actually multiplies and intensifies the closeness experienced, and by extension the strength of the relationship built. As such, it is important to be judicious about who you are vulnerable with, and who you bring into your inner circle to share yourself with.
- You will most likely have to take the first step. Bridges are built from both ends, but getting to mutual agreement on the bridge often requires one side to start building first to demonstrate commitment to the investment. Which side starts is of no importance; it therefore might as well be you.
- In any communication, how you communicate matters as much (if not more) than what you communicate. This means things like tone, body language, choice of words, facial expressions - all of these matter as much as the message itself.
So how do we improve here? A couple of quick thoughts.
- Read. There are tons of books that provide great perspectives on communicating and how we can learn to be more effective at it. Books like Nonviolent Communication, The Charisma Myth, and the classic How to win friends and influence people to name a few are great resources that expand our understanding of communication.
- Take a small, calculated risk. Small victories where we can expose some vulnerability, can communicate some small facet of ourselves unknown to the other will lead to larger risks and larger victories. Going big to start is a surefire way for you to go home immediately after.
- Be persistent. Know that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a deep and vulnerable relationship takes time to build. Because they are rare, your relation may not be immediately receptive. Stay the course.
In learning to communicate, in learning to create spaces of trust that promotes vulnerability, we remove the need for our partners, friends, and colleagues to read our minds. And so my boys, my hope for you is that you will develop the skills necessary to have relationships and partnership where not only do they not need to read your mind, but you also do not have to read theirs.