We Are Really Bad at Reading Minds

The other day I noticed that my son was unusually quiet after baseball practice. This has been an up and down year. At the beginning of Spring, for the first time, he experienced tryouts and player evaluations. The league he was trying out for did player drafts to put together the teams, and they had several different levels of teams. Ben was drafted down a level below what he could have qualified for by age. I chalked it up to us not knowing the procedures and necessarily being 100% ready from the start. But rather than focus on that, we took it as a great opportunity to learn, practice, and have a good time. And what a great time it turned out to be. Ben did GREAT and his team took first place in their division. Ben played catcher and first base, and he did so well that he was asked to try out for the Summer tournament team at the next level up. We were on a high…so excited that he was now being asked to play up.

But then we got to tryouts and practice for the Summer team and realized (of course) that everyone there was playing at a high level, and we had just entered a new level of competition. Ben made the team and went to the practices, adapting to the differences in rules between the different levels of play, but the competition was tough, and the coaching style was very different (a topic for a different post). Ben got edged out of the positions that he had loved playing during the Spring and assigned to less familiar positions and fewer innings of playing time. This was frustrating for him. He felt that he was better at catcher than some of the kids who were getting to play there, and he couldn’t understand why the coaches let the other players play that position but not him.

And thus began our lesson in non-verbal communication. I tried to share with him, in a loving-father, non-preachy sort of way, some of the things that I saw him do and how the coaches might interpret those actions. It was definitely stretching him to think about several different ways that actions or behaviors can be interpreted when you don’t have the context of what someone is thinking. For example, if you are not hustling during practice, does that mean that you are tired or bored or just think practice isn’t as important as a game? He said he was tired, but I would guess the coaches read it another way. Many people say you play like you practice so you should practice like it’s the real thing, and I tend to agree with that, but this was new thinking to him because in his mind practice is practice, nobody is keeping score and games are different. But there is a lot to be said for the power of habit. We went through a few other examples where he thought his behavior was clearly saying one thing and I shared other ways it might be interpreted that were less positive.

It got him thinking…and it got me thinking…what do I do at work or at home where others are reading my actions and they may be interpreting those actions to mean something completely different than I intended. Bosses and spouses, coworkers and friends, everyone makes assumptions based on what they see and what they think that means. For example, someone says something to you as they pass by and you don’t respond…are you mad…are you deep in thought…did you just not hear them? Maybe you’re on a video conference and you’re scowling at the camera…are you upset about what the other person is saying? Or did you just notice that you have a hair out of place and wish it would behave?

Non-verbal communication is all around us and we all engage in it, both sending and receiving. And it colors all of our actions and thoughts. Perhaps now is a good time to think about how others might be misinterpreting you, and how you may have misinterpreted them.

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