Mind reading is a real problem – here’s why

Woman attempting mind reading - painting illustration

Here’s a mind reading scenario for you:

You arrive at work. One of your work colleagues is already there, their head buried in work. You try to say hello, but just get a grunt back. Puzzled, you wonder what has happened. Yesterday the two of you were fine. Everything was okay. But what has happened since?

You ask how they are. They look at you and say they are alright. But looking at their face you realise that they are not.

So you make them a cup of tea. They seem to perk up for a moent before going back into their shell.

It seems that the cup of tea was not enough.

It carries on like this for a while. So you start some serious mind-reading. What have you done wrong to upset them? Why wont they talk to you.

It gets worse when your supervisior comes over and your colleague acts like they usually do – they even try cracking a joke. Then, the supervisor gone, they carry on being quiet.

You try to fix it by buying your colleague a sandwich – surprise! – at lunch. They say thanks, politely, but barely touch it. You hardly exchange any words.

This goes on all day. All the time you are mind reading – has some said something about you to them? Did you create a work problem for them? Why are they talking to your boss and not you?

They haven’t even made you a drink in return for the one you made earlier, and they binned most of that sandwich from before.

You try to talk to them again. It doesn’t work.

The confrontation – the mind reading disaster

Eventually, you boil over: you’re going to sort this out. You are going to get to the bottom of this if it’s the last thing you do.

Right at the end of the day, with everyone else gone, you hit them with a barrage of your best – you ask them what you’ve ever done wrong to them, ask them why they think it is right they are ignoring you.

You thought you were not just work colleagues, but friends as well.

Then they cry – turns out their grandfather died last night. Your colleague had come into work to try and distract themselves. To escape. They had only tried to be cheerful around their boss as a quick sham – they can’t keep it up. They just wanted their boss not to send them home.

You feel compounded with guilt. So you go into overdrive with the caring. You walk them to their car and make too much of a fuss.

Your friend is on the exact roller coaster they didn’t want to be on. They’ve had an unexpected confrontation, and now they’re being fussed over in the exact way they didn’t want.

Worse, work is no longer the temporary escape they wanted it to be. They are stuck with your pity – made even worse now you are overcompensating for the rest of the week.

How mind reading happens

Mind reading happens because our brains like to take what little information we can and turn it into understanding. That’s fine when we are looking at the clouds and guessing if it is going to rain, or looking as far down the road to see if it is safe to cross. However, it is often wrong when it comes to reading other people.

The cues we give are sophisticated, and they make up a lot of our communication. But that said they also are very contextual.

Let me show you how quickly our mind puts things together. Read each line, form a picture and then move on:


A man walks up to the bar.


He looks worse for wear.


The man on the other side of the bar asks him what’s wrong. He doesn’t look well.


The man approaching the bar, a barrister, says he is sorry. He is slightly out of breath because there was an accident on the motorway, and he had only just made it to court on time.


The judge nods and says he understands.


Our brains take scraps of information and put them together in whatever way they can. The above scenario has one scrap on information – a man walks into a bar – and then another piece of information – he looks worse for wear. If we never find out the rest of the story, we draw our own conclusions quickly. The third piece of information is not enough to change it. It’s the final piece that does it.

The solution to mind reading

Mind reading has a place in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – or CBT. There, you are asked to identify and counter balance your initial assumptions. If you are quickly drawing negative conclusions, you are asked to see things from different perspectives than your own. You’re asked to think how you would advise a friend who was in the same position, and you’re asked to decide what information you might need for a clearer picture.

I personally use CBT for Dummies. I don’t normally rush to the “For Dummies” books, but I really recommend this one. Go through the book and use its tips frequently.

Beyond the tips in the book, I’d suggest something really simple: get used to not knowing what is in people’s heads. We can’t know. Not really. We never will.

Then think about this: if you believe a person is behaving oddly, then think back. Is it unusual? If it isn’t then you have a broader issue. If it is unusual then approach them if they like to be approached. That said, if you don’t get any joy don’t worry. You now have demonstrated to yourself this is odd behavior – its a blip on the radar, nothing more.