What if you could read other people’s minds?

The power of empathy

I know for myself how easy it is to assume things about other people with little or no evidence. They don't say anything or they say something we don't like and we make assumptions about who they are and what their faults and failings are. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, which basically means we judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions. So, for example, I see a father getting angry with his child and make a judgement that he must be a bad parent. However, when I do the same thing, I am just showing appropriate discipline to child who deserves what they are getting!

But what if you and I could actually read someone else's mind and really know the challenges and problems they are battling with?

The 4 minute video above is from the Cleveland Clinic, a leading US clinic in Cleveland Ohio. There is no dialogue apart from the unspoken words of the different characters. It is simple, but powerful to watch.

The video was first brought to my attention by John Geater who is International Director of PRIME (an international network of professional healthcare educators, committed to integrating rigorous science and compassionate care for the whole person).

Below are John's observations on the video. While he writes as a doctor, he makes some important universal insights about empathy and getting along side others in their suffering and pain. It is also a good reminder to me about my own attitude when I sit with a patient and/or their family or carer.....

'In a few minutes, we learn to think of the story behind the facial expression not only of patients but also of fellow team members. All too often, in the hectic world of medical care, we think only of the professional task in hand. But we can learn so much by just looking into the eyes of our patients and through the complex neurology of human empathy understand something of their situation in an instant – an instant that can save a great deal of misunderstanding in the subsequent consultation.

One great lesson someone taught me is that the two cardinal moments of a consultation are when a patient enters the room and when they leave it. I took it to heart. I stopped reading through the notes as Mrs Smith or Mr Jones came in, gesturing them to take a seat – instead I looked up as the door handle turned and greeted them with a smile– but most importantly I saw how they came in – anxious and hesitant or maybe embarrassed or maybe looking as if they had good news to share – or some deep sorrow. Such information helped so much the subsequent time together, and far from lengthening the time of many consultations actually reduced them. Then as the person stands up to leave the room, so often we are tempted to turn to the computer keyboard to type in the details – but take a moment to see how they leave – do they pause before turning the handle? do they look back wistfully? This usually meant they had something important to share that they had not revealed, or my advice had not satisfied them. A simple “is there something else?” could often put right in a few seconds something that would otherwise have caused hours of anxiety for the patient, a soured relationship and even a serious undisclosed symptom.'

Empathy is a vital skill to develop. It is the ability to comprehend accurately what another person is thinking and feeling. It is possible to learn empathy by simply being curious, being open to new information, and then allowing yourself to experience feelings that allow you to develop an accurate sense of what is going on inside others.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. To be sympathetic is to take on the same feelings as another person. So when a friend experiences a major loss and you cry with them, that is sympathy. Sympathy is an appropriate response in many situations.

To empathise, on the other hand,  is to understand and recognise the feelings of someone else without having the same feelings. In many ways it is more powerful. The reason is it opens the door to allow you to provide tangible help and support to the suffering person.

A quote often attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato I think summarises this well when he says, "Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about."

What questions and thoughts does this short video raise for you?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “What if you could read other people’s minds?

  1. Important skill to develop – and good to see some medical practitioners taking it so seriously. We’ve all known doctors with appalling bedside manner and empathy.
    The start of your article reminded me of the old Mel Gibson film – What Women Want – where he can suddenly empathize completely and even read the minds of women! … now if I could do THAT just for my wife … 🙂

  2. Thank you for posting this video Sunil. I nearly always at least scan your posts, and often read them and listen to any video you’ve put up. A number of those have made there way to church, and been shown to more people still. This week’s posting is superb. I’ve often thought that Jesus, rather than being a mind reader as some people suggest, ‘saw’ people clearly in all aspects. That he saw people’s stance, facial expression, the angle of their body, the way they glanced or looked at others, and that uncluttered from selfish thoughts focused on himself instead could look at people with clarity and ‘read all the signs’ as to how they were. Hence, when he looked at the widow who came out of Nain, we hear that he looked with compassion. People noticed, that as he saw others, his face itself (eyes, cheeks, lips etc) revealed a heart going out towards that woman in her grief. So I found this video profound, moving, and it made me wish that I put myself more in other’s shoes – especially when Jesus Christ is all about that (and other things) – in that he quite literally as the Son of God put himself in my/our shoes by becoming a living, breathing human being – and a man. I would like to ‘see’ people better as he saw people, as your video suggests too, to see beyond the physical, to the deep longings and griefs and joys of those around me. Thank you again! I will use this at church one day soon – when it is relevant. Brilliant!

    • So glad you found the video an encouragement, Colin. And very helpful insights as to how Jesus would have looked at people. It is such a reminder not to make assumptions. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and reflections!