I recently listened to this incredible TED Radio Hour titled Decoding Our Emotions. Like every TED Radio Hour, this one was packed with multiple views of the topic, but one really impacted me deeply. It was the section entitled: Can we really tell how other people are feeling? and it was based on a TED talk by Lisa Feldman Barrett. In this segment, the show’s host, Guy Raz, asks Lisa, “do emotions apply to all people universally across the board?” to which she replies, “no, they don’t.”” Here’s just one snippet of their exchange.
BARRETT: Here’s what we know. We know that there is no single objective fingerprint, single objective measure, for any emotion that holds across instances, across people, across cultures. My husband, for example, makes a full-on scowling face when he is thinking very deeply. People often will say to him, are you angry? And he’ll say, no, I’m not angry. I’m thinking. And it’s really tempting, you know, to believe that your confidence that you’re right means that you can read people beautifully. But the fact is when you perceive emotion in someone else, you’re just guessing. Is it ever possible to guess correctly? I would say of course it’s possible to guess correctly. We do it all the time.
RAZ: Except you’re guessing.
“Guessing.” “Tempting to believe your confidence that you’re right means you can read people beautifully.” That section left an impact on me. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I tend to have a pretty high opinion of my ability to read people and relate to their situations. Those who know me would likely tell you that I am an incredibly empathetic person by nature, often too a fault. However, it is sobering to recognize that I am merely guessing when I read and relate to people and, moreover, I am likely to be wrong much of the time! This is incredibly humbling. It builds awareness to learn this about myself and I would encourage you to listen, watch or read the material I have linked in this post to see if this applies to you in some way. I would encourage you to practice being mindful of your overconfidence, as I plan to be.
After reading this or learning more, the temptation and reaction you might have could be to pull back from other people or at least shy away from trying to meet them where they are, with your newfound fear of guessing wrong. I know that is what I thought about immediately after listening to this. I thought about all the times I misread or misunderstood or couldn’t relate to someone, even though I thought I “nailed it.” I thought about all the fails versus the wins and good (or close) guesses. If you are thinking of pulling back, I say that is the exact opposite of what you should do.
Please don’t forget that in the same way that we are all wired differently and have this beautiful diversity among us, we have a shared humanity as well. We are all part of the same creation and we are intended to do life together. We have been given these incredible brains, complicated emotions and an individual makeup that expresses all of that for a reason. That reason is to take part and participate in the greater whole of creation. We are not called to be a bystander, not asked to be a mere observer, we are challenged to play our part as as full and engaged partner with the other flawed, complex people we find in our community and our environment.
So, please, listen to Guy and listen to Lisa and the other incredibly brilliant people on this podcast, but do me a favor… Don’t shy away from interacting with people and trying to relate to them. Make your guesses, reach out in a loving, unselfish way toward those around you, knowing that you may not always get the guess right, or share the same experience, or even ever be able to share the same experience. It is worth some wrong guesses to grow together and be better together with others. We need each other. One last thing, when people reach out to you, and I am guilty of this all the time, try to avoid pointing out just how bad their guesses are. Try your best to accept that they are making a bid for connection with you and find a way to share your unique experience without pushing them away. You’ll be glad you did. (At least I’m guessing you’ll be glad.)