You don’t use your mind to read the minds of others. You read minds by reading your heart and gut.
To fully hear and understand someone, you need to be aware of your sensory reactions as well as your mental activity. With sensory awareness, you can receive and discern what is going on with others beyond the words they speak.
It’s likely you spend most of your time using your Cognitive Awareness. You seek to understand situations and people by narrowing in on and interpreting what you see and hear. Even with training, it is hard to accurately decipher facial expressions as psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett and colleagues have found.
There is far more going on in any interaction than what people are saying and perceptibly expressing.
Sensory awareness includes an inward awareness of your reactions in a conversation. Your reactions might be in response to what they tell you. You also might be reacting to what you energetically receive from the people and the world around you.
You can sense people’s desires, disappointments, needs, frustrations, hopes, and doubts when they can’t or have trouble articulating these experiences themselves. This requires you access all three processing centers of the nervous system — your brain, heart, and gut.
The courage to be sensitive
Being sensitive doesn’t mean being wishy-washy. It means you are aware of what is going on around you on a sensory level, and can sense when people are conflicted, distressed, or stimulated. Most people claim their pets have this uncanny radar, able to sense emotional needs from another room. It’s the ability to pick up vibrations emitted from emotions.
You were likely cut off your senses as a part of your conditioning as a child. Were you ever told, “You shouldn’t take things so personally,” or, “You’re too soft. You should toughen up?”
When you don’t allow people to get under your skin, you aren’t experiencing others and yourself fully. You are disconnected internally and externally. You put up a wall between yourself and the people you are with.
I’m often asked if venturing into the land of emotions is risky, especially at work. “I can’t show I’m emotionally affected by what is going on, and I certainly can’t allow people’s emotions to sway me.” The business world is full of aphorisms that declare, “Only the tough survive.”
When you allow yourself to be sensitive – to feel deeply and empathize with others – you are more capable of making a difference.
Empathy doesn’t mean getting caught up in people’s emotions and dramas. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is understanding. Sympathy is absorbing other’s emotions and either taking them on yourself or trying to minimize them so you both don’t feel.
Empathy shows you understand what others are experiencing and that you accept their experience without judgment. When people feel safe to express themselves, they can move into exploration and action more quickly.
By elevating your Sensory Awareness, you help people feel seen, accepted, and valued. Your empathy gives hope.
To start, you must see being sensitive as a strength. This requires a shift in perspective, not in personality.
6 steps for building sensory awareness in conversation
1. Be quiet, inside and out. When you quiet your thinking/chattering brain, you clear your sensory channels.
2. Listen with your heart and gut as well as your head. Before your conversation, recall what you are most grateful for to open your heart. Then breath into your belly while remembering a time you spoke up or stood up despite your fears to open your gut. You can find a quick visualization on how to open all three processing centers of your nervous system—your head, heart, and gut—on this page.
3. Ask yourself what you are feeling. Your emotions are in part a reflection of what the other person is feeling. You may have to learn how to discern your emotional reactions from what you pick up from others. To help learn this skill, use this Emotional Awareness exercise: Notice when you are uncomfortable with the emotions you are picking up. See if you can release your judgment by activating your curiosity. Relax your muscles and your breathing. Care more about them than yourself in this moment.
4. Test your instinct. When you feel a sensation in your heart or gut, share what you think they might be feeling—anger, frustration, sadness, yearning. Accept their response whether they agree with you or not. If you are wrong, your guess could help them identify their emotions and inclinations for action. Be quiet and patient with their response; they may need time and space to think about what they feel. Don’t interrupt their thinking or try to make them feel better. Catch this urge and return to listening. If they say they don’t want to talk about it, accept their request.
5. Don’t criticize yourself. If you beat yourself up for not being perfectly aware, you will disconnect from the person.
6. End graciously. Ask if there is anything they need to move forward now. You can ask if they would like to look at possible solutions. If not, thank them for sharing with you.
I know this is easier said than done. Staying alert to the emotions you are feeling and receiving can be painful, scary, or uncomfortable. It takes true strength to stay tuned-in.
Most people want to feel seen, understood, and valued especially when emotionally conflicted. When you share what you hear with your heart and gut, they might appreciate that you are listening and caring so deeply.
We all have the capacity to read minds. We just need the patience and trust to believe what we read.
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