How The Tiniest Word Can Stop You Mind-Reading

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Mind-Reading and Owning Language: A ‘Me, Myself, and I’ Affair

Ever caught yourself playing the dubious game of ‘mind-reading’? It’s like assuming you’ve got psychic powers—minus the crystal ball. Mind-reading is when you reckon you know what’s going on in other people’s heads, or you believe they share your opinion. You might never have even considered you were mind-reading.

Now, what’s the teeniest-tiniest word in the Queen’s English?

I would argue it’s ‘I’. No, I’m not going off track, because using this teensie-weensie word will stop you mind-reading.

Case in point: a discussion with a course participant, let’s call them ‘Participant X’ to add a bit of mystery, shall we?

Participant X: “You know how you feel uncomfortable when you talk to people in authority? Well, it would be great if you knew how to be confident.”

Me (thinking ‘A-ha!’ moment coming up!’): “Are you saying that I feel uncomfortable when I talk to people in authority?” (pointing at myself for dramatic effect.)

Participant X, back-pedalling: “Oh no, not you! Just, you know, people in general…”

I interrupted, “Are you saying that you feel uncomfortable talking to people in authority?”

Participant X: “Well, not just me. Most people!”

I watched other participants twitching and wriggling in their seats and realised we had a teaching moment on our hands.

Me: “If you feel uncomfortable with people in authority, just say, ‘I feel uncomfortable with people in authority.’ Using ‘you’ makes it sound like we all have the same problem, and that you’re speaking on everyone’s behalf. Maybe there are some here who can chat with anyone like they’re just discussing the weather. There might be people here who don’t share your problem.”

Participant X, gobsmacked: “So you’re saying I’m the only one?”

As heads nodded around the room, we had ourselves a lightbulb moment!

Understanding that not everyone shares your brand of reality is a massive reason why using ‘I’ statements, or as I like to call it, ‘owning your language,’ is such a big deal.

So, what’s ‘owning language’ all about?

It’s not about having a chat with your dictionary, I promise. It’s about labelling your opinions and viewpoints with a big, fat ‘I’. For example, “I reckon learning to tap dance on eggshells is essential.” Or “I think”, “I believe”, “in my experience”… etc

On the flip side, ‘You’ language is like saying, “Everyone should wear socks with sandals,” as if it’s the gold standard of fashion sense. Spoiler: It’s not!

Do you find expressing your personal opinions a challenge?

You’re certainly not alone. I used to have that problem. Saying anything that started with the word ‘I’ was scary as sh*t! I’d tell myself “People will think I’m opinionated, arrogant, condescending, stuck-up!”

I thought that generalising and including everyone in my unique observations of life was somehow inclusive and created empathy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ll tell you what—it makes me cringe now

All I needed was a bit of confidence so that I could own whatever I was blabbering on about!

“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” ~ George Bernard Shaw.

In my training courses, we agree to some guidelines at the very start—call them formulas for a great workshop. One of these is ‘owning your language.’ I always explain what it means, why I believe it’s important and what participants can expect to gain. While everyone is happy to agree to it, they find it incredibly tricky at first!

Yet, once they get the hang of it, it’s like discovering they have special powers. They start seeing their own patterns and quirks, which is a super-quick way to gain personal insights and self-awareness.

Not owning your opinions = mind-reading

A whimsical and surreal illustration representing the concept of mind-reading, in a landscape format. The image features a person with a thoughtful expression

You confuse yourself when you use ‘you’ language because you mind-read, or assume any challenges you face are:

  1. Facts of life. You’re less likely to do anything about a fact of life (like participant X).
  2. Generalisations. If it’s a generalisation, then everyone is experiencing the same problem as you, so it may seem pointless trying to do anything about it. You’ll just accept it.

So either way, you’re unlikely to make changes.

You regain control over the issue when you accept it as your own.

When you start with ‘I’ instead of ‘you’, you’ll:

  1. Think more before you speak, as well as choose your words more carefully.
  2. Quit the mind-reading act—not everyone’s been to the same rodeo as you.
  3. Respect others who might have formed differing opinions.
  4. Spot your limitations as your own, which also means you can take responsibility for overcoming them.
  5. Acknowledge you’re sharing your opinion or belief—not facts or general collective opinions.

Facts are verifiable and indisputable

Facts are like the sturdy legs of a table—they hold things up. Like, mammals have bones (unless they’re hiding an exoskeleton somewhere).

Or that 2 plus 2 makes 4, not a zebra.

But, hang on! Some ‘facts’ have no staying power

If it hadn’t been for Gallileo advocating the heliocentric theory we’d still believe the sun orbited the earth. In 1633, Galileo was tried by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for sharing what became a scientific fact. He was forced to recant his views and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. (Are you beginning to understand why people don’t want to stick their necks out?)

Prior to 1954 running a mile in under four minutes was as likely as spotting a unicorn at the supermarket. But once Roger Bannister achieved it, it was no longer a myth. These days, sub-four-minute miles are relatively common.

Those ‘facts’ are now fallacies.

A creative and symbolic illustration representing the shift from the impossible to the possible, inspired by the history of the four-minute mile and Gallileo

What about general collective opinions?

General collective opinions are basically those opinions and beliefs held by a society, aka generalisations.

Many societies view taking someone’s chips (or life, for a more serious example) as ‘not cricket’, but that’s not a universal rule, and isn’t shared by all cultures or societies. If something isn’t a fact, or general collective opinion, then by definition it’s your own view or belief.

Opinions and beliefs share unique characteristics

Beliefs and opinions refer to judgements or personal feelings, not founded on proof. If it’s not a fact or a popular opinion, then it’s unique to you. I characterise opinion statements by words such as ‘I think’, ‘I believe’.’I reckon’, ‘For me…’ or ‘The way I see things…’

Fascinatingly, us Kiwis tend to use less ‘I’ language than other cultures.

According to research into various cultures by Cultural Detective, modesty—defined as being humble, understated and self-effacing, is one of New Zealand’s cultural values. So expressing and owning a firm opinion almost goes against this cultural norm. We want to blend in, rather than stand out. Speaking up feels a bit like dancing in the spotlight, when you’re really aiming for a dark corner in the back row.

This is my two cents, mind you!

In contrast, our Aussie neighbours march to the beat of ‘forthrightness’, and the Americans? They’re all about jazz hands and self-promotion.

Using ‘you’ language means you’re treating your personal hurdles as universal truths—like everyone finds clowns unnerving (just me?).

Owning your language?

It’s like finding the remote control for your life—suddenly, you’re in charge!

Here’s how to quit the mind-reading biz and take the reins:

  1. Be aware of the words you pick.
  2. Try swapping ‘you’ for ‘I’ and see the ripple effect— it’s like dropping a pebble in a pond.
  3. Rinse and repeat!

Embracing the power of ‘I’ can feel like discovering you’ve had a superhero cape tucked in your trousers (or knickers!) all along. You’ll:

  • Reclaim your confidence, knowing you’re taking responsibility for what you say, rather than talking on autopilot.
  • Boost your self-awareness, seeing your own kaleidoscope of views.
  • Avoid ruffling feathers by respecting that others have their own opinions.

By starting your conversations with the tiny yet mighty ‘I’, you speak only for yourself, leaving the mind-reading act for magic shows and carnival side stalls.

4 aces floating above a magicians hat with a magic wand

Owning your language is powerful

People have shown me, time and time again, that although it can be a challenge initially, taking ownership of what you say restores your ability to change whatever isn’t working.

“I’m sorry, if you were right, I’d agree with you.” ~ Robin Williams.

Ways to quit mind-reading and wrestle back control for yourself

  1. Notice how you relate your points of view and the language you use to do so.
  2. Try changing any ‘you’ language to ‘I’ language and notice the impact it has, both on you and whoever you’re talking to.
  3. Repeat 1 and 2!

By owning what you say, you’ll discover

  • Restoration of your sovereignty, giving you influence over situations you might have previously assumed were beyond your control.
  • Increased self-awareness. You’ll recognise your own judgements, points of view and preconceptions.
  • You no longer provoke, upset or frustrate those with different viewpoints and who would rather voice their own opinions.
  • By inserting the tiniest word in the English language—I—at the beginning of your remarks, you’ll speak only for yourself and stop mind-reading what others might think.

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Tags: Communication skills, Language, Perception, Self-awareness, Thinking and mindset

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