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Empathic Interference: Mind Reading in Everyday Life

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There are some people we encounter in life who seem to read us like manuals, analyzing and understanding every part of our psyches even better than we do. They’re so attuned to our inner thoughts and feelings that they make us wonder if telepathy exists beyond science fiction movies and the claims of TV psychics. But these friends and family members who know us eerily well don’t have superpowers; they just pay attention more. 


Some psychologists would call these people “empathically accurate,” which means that they’re highly skilled at intuiting information about people through interactions (a process called empathic interference). The term’s been around since psychologist William Ickes, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, helped coin it in 1988. Since then, researchers have attempted to find out more about empathic accuracy—namely, if there are certain characteristics that empathically accurate individuals share, and if the skill can be developed over time. Luckily for us, their findings suggest we can all learn to read others better. We just have to know ourselves first. 


A Few Distinguishing Factors
According to Jodi Freedman, a woman I spoke with whose friends consider her an adept people-reader (she doesn’t call herself an “empath,” but at least one person has described her that way), everyone’s born with the ability. “We’re hardwired for that; whether it gets acknowledged or developed depends on the path life takes,” she says. Jodi also believes that a troubled childhood can encourage the skill to emerge to a greater degree because kids who grow up in unsafe home environments learn to look for unspoken cues to alert them to danger. 


Some professions foster empathic accuracy, such as therapy, teaching, sales, and diplomacy. Being naturally intuitive benefits Jodi as a teacher, but being a teacher also helps her hone that capacity. “I find that teachers have this ability more than others, because on the first day of school, we have to assess the kids,” she explains. “We have to get [information about their personalities] and get it quickly.” But she also says that any job that requires working with others necessitates a bit of mind reading. 


Career choices aside, some people believe the empathically accurate share specific personality traits as well. One of the essays in the book Empathic Accuracy, “Personality and Empathic Accuracy,” reviewed multiple studies on the subject to create a list of possible characteristics associated with the gift. Among them are a higher-than-average IQ and attention to detail, a good amount of trust in people, “social sensitivity” (being aware of social norms and others’ opinions), sociability, and self-awareness. People who can read others don’t necessarily have all of these traits, but they’re the ones that came up most often among the most successful empaths in the study. 


What doesn’t seem to be a factor in someone’s empathic accuracy is one that many people consider highly important—gender. But one study Ickes and his colleagues performed showed that women, often thought to be the more intuitive sex, proved so only when they were reminded of the supposedly innate skill. Two researchers at the University of Oregon took these findings further by assigning men and women to people-reading tasks and offering them either no payment or payment for being successful. When given nothing, women outperformed men. But with financial incentive, the men were able to match the women in empathic accuracy. Apparently, the only difference between a man’s and a woman’s ability to read someone else is a matter of motivation. 


Learning the Tricks of the Trade
Regardless of whether you’re male or female, socially inept or socially graceful, everyone has the power to read others better. It just takes patience, practice, effort, and—perhaps most importantly—knowing yourself primarily. After all, if you’re not present enough to understand your own thoughts and feelings, how can you understand anyone else’s? Jodi recommends practicing meditation as a way to encourage mindfulness and inner peace. She also practices Feldenkrais, a movement method meant to increase awareness of one’s own body. It’s taught her to recognize the facets of another person’s body and experiences while maintaining cognizance of her own. 


Because of this, she feels that taking any sort of bodywork class is a step in the right direction. “Learn basic massage or take an acting or improv course where you have to be the observer and the observed,” she advises, “or anything you can do to increase awareness without judgment.” Jodi feels that’s the key to being empathically accurate—learning to pick up on information about someone else without adding your own bias. Seeking out new experiences is a great place to start. “Just read other things outside of who you are to see how people are in the world,” she says. “Look around for things that aren’t like you, and be observant.” 


When talking with her friends about issues in their lives, Jodi tries to show them different options without trying to “fix” things. Sometimes people just need to vent, rather than having solutions presented to them, and she tries to find a balance between the two. “That’s just what a good friend does,” Jodi explains. “A good friend listens and is present in the way she’s needed to be.” This is why good empaths find a way to stay within themselves while reading others—they need to be objective enough to see the situation fully, but emotionally connected enough to see where that person is within it. Above all, being able to really listen is a powerful tool for mind reading. A 1999 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that empathic accuracy is more dependent on verbal clues than on things like body language or even context. 


It’s important to realize that empathic interference is a skill that should be used with discretion—we need to respect people’s desire to keep things to themselves. But mind reading isn’t about forcing someone to talk about his or her problems or spill a few secrets; it’s just a way of being more aware of the people around you. Trying to understand yourself and others better has the potential to improve not only your relationships, but your own sense of well-being, too. As Jodi puts it, “People who want to increase their empathic accuracy just need to take steps to be more present and happy in their life in general. When they take those steps, everybody benefits.”

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