You are arguing with your partner when they make a comment that you just know means so much more than the words they are using. You can read between the lines when they ask you to take out the trash because what they really mean is that you never do anything around the house to help out. You then accuse them of calling you irresponsible and lazy even though those words had not been spoken. Sound familiar? Although it may play out a bit differently in your relationship, many couples experience this problem with communication. It is called mind reading and it happens when one person attempts to “read the mind” of their partner, by filtering the situation through their own experiences and beliefs to come to a conclusion on what their partner is thinking or feeling. Let me state now that mind reading in itself is not a problem. It is actually a higher order ability limited to humans and helps us develop empathy for others. The problem is that we are not always accurate.
For instance, in the example stated above, the partner being reminded to take out the trash looks at his wife’s expressions, thinks about what has happened in the past when discussing the trash and other household chores, thinks about his wife’s typical complaints about him, and maybe even about how his mother used to call him lazy for not taking out the trash. With all that information he determines his wife is being critical of him too. In reality, however, his wife may be making that face because the trash just smells bad and she is not even thinking about labeling his behavior as lazy.
When we engage in mind reading, we create the opportunity for an unwarranted argument to begin. So what can you do if you find that you and your partner encounter this problem often? Well, it is important to be aware of your thought processes and to notice when you are engaging in mind reading behavior. Mentally take a step back and think about the situation to determine if you are jumping to conclusions or if you might actually be correct in assuming your partner’s thoughts or feelings. Instead of getting angry right away, however, it is important to ask for clarification and open the dialogue in order to hear your partner’s side of the story. It is important to do this in a non-confrontational manner, otherwise you risk your partner becoming defensive in their response, which typically leads to an escalation in emotions and arguments. If you feel as though your partner is engaging in mind reading with you, it may be helpful to stop the conversation, and state to them that you are getting the feeling they are misunderstanding you and your intentions. You will then need to clarify for them what you mean and assure them that you were not trying to hint at anything negative.
In the following entries I will continue to discuss ways to improve your communication with your partner and others.