Do we really know what people are thinking?


My partner recently went to help a stranger who had suffered a major fit. The woman was completely out of it. John and another man stood with her and talked to her till she came round. Once she was fully conscious, she completely ignored them and went on her way.

When he told me this, I was shocked at how ungrateful she was. Surely, she could have taken the time to thank these total strangers for their help. It was dreadful that she had just gone on her way without stopping to recognise their kindness.
John then told me that he had spoken to someone who knew her well. Lucy told him that the woman was ashamed of her fits. When she had them in public, she just couldn’t bear to acknowledge what had happened. This meant she couldn’t thank strangers for their actions and concern.

This set me thinking. It’s a great reminder that we just don’t know what is going on for other people. Without knowing about her shame, her actions seemed ungrateful and shocking. Once I knew about her shame, my attitude changed completely. I felt great sadness for the woman and her predicament.

The Harvard Negotiation Project researchers give a piece of advice that works in business and in family life: when you deal with difficult situations assume that you don’t know what the other person’s motivations are, because chances are, you don’t.
It’s easy to forget this very good advice, based on research by the Project.

Many years ago I made a new friend. We met for lunch a few times. We laughed and exchanged life stories. I thought she was one of the most positive people I’d ever met. She was a joy to be around. But a couple of months later she was dead. She had committed suicide. She had planned it in in a way that made certain she wouldn’t be found until after she was dead. I went over and over those few lunches we had together, trying to see if there was any indication of her inner turmoil. No matter how many times I analysed them, I couldn’t see any hint of her inner despair.

depressed person

This reinforced for me that we just don’t know what is going on with other people. We can’t be certain that when they appear rude and selfish that is because that’s exactly what they are being. Nor can we assume that when people appear very happy, they actually are.

For that reason, we need to be kind and generous to others. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt when we find them difficult or selfish. We need to still offer support and understanding to people who appear confident and happy.We  don’t know what is going on inside.

Of course, this works both ways. Other people often don’t understand why we are behaving in a certain way. They may not understand that we are hurting inside in spite of our smiling face. So, we need to cut people some slack in how they react and support us. They may just not know. Just as we don’t know what is going on for them.