As an empath, I have the natural ability of mind reading. Not the mind reading from science-fiction books, of course; just a stronger-than-average ability to read people.
It serves me well in almost every arena because relationships are at the core of our lives as humans. I can intuit when a friend is secretly unhappy or when a significant other is upset, but I can also navigate less intimate relationships — like those with colleagues — more successfully than most people. Not everyone is born with my aptitude, though, and even those of us who are should understand how we can use it to our advantage.
Below are some tricks on how to read people's minds. Not just for reading body language, but for deciphering facial expressions and honing in on all the other little things that reveal a person’s thoughts.
1. Acknowledge hostility.
I was once hired as a consultant for a start-up, and when I arrived to meet the team, they all filed into the conference room and sat slouched with their arms crossed. Their closed-off body language suggested they were not open to a new person (me) joining the team.
Pouting like this may denote mere immaturity on the part of a colleague, or it may indicate larger organizational problems. In my case, it led me to be wary of company politics. The employees’ attitudes telegraphed that I’d been hired either over the objections of every single other member of the team or that I’d been hired without the CEO’s having ever consulted the team in the first place.
Because of what I found when reading people in that first meeting, I was able to bring my concerns separately to the staff and to management, diffusing some of the tension in each group simply by acknowledging it. I also adjusted my workflows to require less input from the reluctant staff and funneled all my work through a single staff point of contact, to minimize the negativity flowing my way and to stop the office politics from interfering with the work.
2. Back up your reading with evidence.
One particular team member never warmed to me, and it was her refusal to make eye contact when we spoke that first clued me in. Since that in itself isn’t necessarily hostile — in some instances, it might be an innocent sign of shyness — I observed her behavior with other employees to get a fuller picture of her as a team member. Had I found her distant with everyone, I would have shrugged off her attitude toward me as a personality quirk and moved on. Instead, I found her to be effusive and engaging with every team member but me, and I knew we had a problem.
The grudge that that employee bore against me, though clearly grounded in office politics and not in anything I had done, made me feel unwanted and hurt. Imagine if I’d carried that around for months, never having taken the time to verify that it was, indeed, a personal grudge. What if she had just been withdrawn by nature, and I’d walked around wrestling with perceived negativity when there was none? Before jumping to conclusions about people, observe them in a broader context to see how their behavior toward you compares with their behavior elsewhere. This mind reading trick may help you find facts about other people that may surprise you.
3. Recognize (and assuage) anxiety in others.
I didn't need to be a mind reader to know that my one-time manager’s left leg said all that needed to be said about the company’s work environment. He was constantly jiggling his leg, giving off an air of such intense anxiety, I wanted to pull him aside and walk him through a breathing exercise every time we met. He worked with his back hunched over, hands always supporting his forehead in classic “headache” pose, and never relaxed his posture.
In this case, all the body language taken together told a clear story of immense and constant pressure; not one of a healthy or productive work environment. When interviewing, pay as much attention to people’s body language as you do to the words coming out of their mouths. The two may not tell the same story.
When you see people wiggle their knees back and forth incessantly, your brain should view that as anxiety. Help them out with positive reinforcement before, during and after a moment that clearly makes them anxious. Take it a step further at another, less emotional time by mentioning again how well the person did. Offer yourself as a resource should they ever need help. The goal is not to telegraph how obvious their anxiety is, but to offer understanding and assistance in an area where someone is demonstrating insecurity. That’s a great way to use your mind reading skills for the better.
4. Focus on what's different.
Most people want to share positive thoughts and feelings, which is why you usually don’t have to do much mind reading to find those. We tend to downplay or hide negative emotions altogether. Those are what you will tend to find when you pay close attention. The most important thing to do when reading the people around you, whether for positive or negative thoughts, is to concentrate on deviations from the norm.
For example, maybe a person is usually argumentative and passionate, but she’s recently lost interest; she may have one foot out the door. If a colleague who’s normally quiet suddenly starts chatting with everyone, he may have had a positive development in his personal life, or he may be taking his work relationships more seriously because he’s decided to pursue a promotion.
The goal of mind reading isn’t to get a leg up on your colleagues, but to support them when they need it — whether they’re trying to make friends, get through a presentation or deal with a frustrating manager. It can also make your life easier by enabling you to adjust your processes to minimize conflict and maximize the quality of your work.
It’s important to keep in mind that body language is merely the outward presentation of a person’s feelings. And while you can always make logical deductions as to the cause of a person’s affect, it’s vital to remember that you can never be certain that your conclusions are correct. Be careful, therefore, not to predicate big decisions on those deductions or leap to judgments based on those assessments alone.
Mind reading is a responsibility as well as a privilege. Proceed with caution and compassion and you’ll go far.
Emily Rose is a storyteller at heart, a Kentuckian living in Brooklyn. Also an NYU/Tisch grad, she produced an EP, performed Shakespeare, recorded voice-overs, and taught music to kids before becoming a marketer in the start-up world. Follow her at @the_gremily, and do let her know if you'd like to publish her children's story.