Mind-Reading is Bad for Relationships

Mind-reading glasses?Are you good at reading people? Do you easily pick up on the moods or feelings of others? If the answer is Yes, here’s some food for thought.

For some years I facilitated therapy groups for people interested in personal growth. This involved interviewing potential new members to make sure the fit was right for both the person and the group.

It was through one of these interviews that I met Enola (not her real name), who told me an unfortunately typical story of a childhood filled with material things and virtually devoid of emotional connection.

“My parents never talked about feelings,” she said.  Nor, apparently, did they show them in front of their children. How had Enola coped with this? She told me, “I’m very sensitive to moods and emotions, and exceptionally good at reading people.”

What You See Isn’t What You Get

As a semi-reformed mind-reader myself, I understand the need to let go of the illusion of omniscience. What you think you see and what is true are different more often than not.

Like Enola, I used to think I was great at reading people. But that ended when I started testing my hypotheses by actually asking people what they were thinking. It never ceases to amaze me what’s actually going on with people when I ask them; it’s often something I never would have thought of.

I encourage my therapy clients to ask me what I’m thinking or feeling if they “read” something in my expression that gives them pause.

I try to be a good role model; when I see something registering on a client’s face, I ask them about it. This makes it seem normal and acceptable to check in with someone who seems to be having a thought or feeling.

I’m constantly surprised, even shocked, at how my body language is interpreted. “I can tell you don’t believe me.” “You probably don’t want to hear any more of this.” “You’re thinking I should leave him.”


On the rare occasions when someone gets it right (“You look tired” is the one I remember), I acknowledge it. But when they’re wrong, I get to provide the valuable service of shaking their faith in their mind-reading skills.

Rx for Mind-Readers

It’s easy to believe you’re good at reading faces, vocal tones and behavior if you never check in to find out if you’re right. As far as you know, you’re 100% accurate.

I have some startling news for you. Not only are you wrong sometimes, you’re wrong MOST of the time. Yes, even you, the very sensitive, pick-up-on-people’s moods person. You might be good at gauging the tone of someone’s feelings, but you still can’t read someone’s mind.

That disapproval you see on someone’s face is actually indigestion, or a spontaneous memory of something that happened when you weren’t even around, or the anticipation of an event you’re not involved in … or something else I can’t even think of.

If someone appears to be angry with you, you’re allowed to ask them if they’re angry with you. If they say “No, why do you say that?” you can tell them, “I noticed you weren’t looking at me, and your lips were kind of tight, and you haven’t smiled at me today.” This gives them the opportunity to say, “Oh! Sorry, I didn’t realize. What’s actually going on with me today is … “

If it turns out they really are angry but won’t admit it, then you have a bigger problem in the relationship. At least one of you is operating under the assumption that it’s not acceptable to be honest about certain feelings. In that case, I recommend family or couples counseling.

*  *  *

Enola joined the group and fared very well, but only after we’d spoken at length about the dangers of mind-reading.

In group, she practiced asking other members what they were thinking instead of making assumptions. At first this was extremely difficult for her to do; she’d been keeping her own counsel for so long, it was scary to reach out. But she said it was freeing to acknowledge her right to check in, and eventually she became a competent “checker-inner” instead of an isolated — and misinformed — mind-reader.

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