There’s something about absorbing a cool story that makes me want to be like the main characters. I’m sure you’ve felt that way too. (I know you throw a couple of punches after a superhero movie when no one’s looking.)
Reading New York Times bestselling Keeper of the Lost Cities series by Shannon Messenger is no exception. The main characters are elves with various special abilities. Three of the main characters have telepathy or empathy, abilities I’d love to emulate. Telepathy is all about mind reading and thought transmission while empathy is about feeling what others are feeling. Literally.
While they are two distinct abilities, the line between them is somewhat blurry. That’s because they have a similar goal: understanding what’s going on inside someone. And that goal is valuable to both elves and humans.
Cue me pondering how it might be possible enhance that ability as a regular person.
Then it hit me — I already implement a bunch of people-reading strategies subconsciously! They help me to know what someone is going to say before they say it or feel their emotions even when they deny them. I’ve answered questions before they were asked, known something was wrong over text from a single innocuous word of greeting, and anticipated people messaging me.
The good news is you can do that too, no special abilities or elvish blood required. With practice, it’s possible to develop telepath and empath-like skills to better understand what the people in your life are thinking and feeling. You won’t literally be able to read minds or know exactly what five emotions someone’s experiencing simply by touching them, but you can become better attuned at figuring all that stuff out.
Empaths are a real thing.
The word is meant to refer to “highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empath to describe a person that experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense.”
While this article will address how to become more like that, my use of the word empath is the elvish, fictional version. Sounds good? Same with telepaths. I offer no comment on any regular human claiming to be a legitimate telepath in the strict sense of the word.
Tuning into people
Developing telepath and empath skills is all about tuning into people. It takes concerted effort, focus, and a willingness to ask for feedback and be wrong sometimes. (Or often, especially at the beginning.) Some people are easier to understand and read while some people will constantly stump you, but ultimately your motivation to connect and persevere will be the biggest predictors of success.
(Just don’t be creepy about it, of course.)
Following is a list of tactics to help you develop your telepath and empath skills. They aren’t quick tips you can implement in an instant to total success, but they *will*, if applied consistently and diligently, help you achieve a better understanding of those around you. (And you might even be able to freak said people out by finishing their sentences or intuiting their mood over text.)
#1 Step back
An important factor in understanding someone is understanding the context in which they operate. You can’t anticipate the direction of a conversation or intuit how someone might be feeling if you know nothing about the greater context of their lives. For that reason, try to step back when you want to understand someone. Look at the greater picture. What are they struggling with right now? What are their interests? How are their relationships with others? What’s their personality type? What’s their favourite cookie? The more information and context you have about and for someone, the better you can anticipate, intuit, and understand what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and what’s going on inside them. Once you have more information, you are able to start implementing #2…
#2 Look for patterns
Patterns are your friend. People who are especially intuitive piece together patterns subconsciously, but if that isn’t you, you can learn how to do it consciously.
Patterns are pieces of context about people that you put together to get greater insight than you’d have from the individual pieces. Patterns let you see how people work, what they react to and how and why. They let you anticipate what people might be thinking and feeling based off of past experiences. On some level, implementing this tactic is very basic and the concept is obvious, but on another, it can be incredibly subtle and requires paying attention, sorting, storing, and pulling up that info when needed. It requires piecing together a picture of someone like a computer program to know what to possibly expect.
People are more complex than any pattern you’d piece together, but it’s amazing what you can anticipate or understand if you take the time to build mental maps of someone. They can include even the subtlest of expressions, which you can compare to past expressions and how they related to the conversation or circumstances.
That said, you can pick up on patterns but struggle to properly understand the emotion behind them, which is where #3 is helpful…
#3 Draw comparisons
When trying to understand how someone might be feeling or what they could be thinking, drawing comparisons to your own experience or the experiences of others is helpful. With the context you know of, think about what similar experience you might have been through or imagine how you’d feel or react if you were in their situation. Place yourself in the situation as if you were an actor preparing for a role.
I was only able to fully empathise and feel other people’s emotions around something when I went through something similar. If you’ve gone through something similar, call upon those memories. Think about how you felt. Think about how you’d feel. Listen carefully to what the person is telling you about it and pay attention to their body language so you can build accurate emotions inside you through incorporating your own feelings of what it’s like to experience whatever it is they’re going through.
Feeling someone else’s feelings starts with calling upon your own, related feelings.
Now, all this might sound presumptuous and on some level it is. Just because you’ve experienced something doesn’t mean someone else will experience it the same way and that’s why #4 is important…
#4 Solicit feedback
You aren’t an elf and even elves aren’t all-knowing. That’s where asking for feedback comes in. If you get the sense that someone is upset, ask about it. If you imagine they’re thinking a certain thing, confirm if that’s the case. The more you fact check your intuition, assumptions, and analyses, the more you can work on honing them. If you’re wrong about something, which will happen a lot, you can try to understand where you made the mistake so you can course correct (and be more accurate next time).
Soliciting feedback keeps you grounded and humble…and on the right track. Improving your telepath and empath-like skills is all about training your understanding of people, so asking for the other person’s thoughts and perspective on what’s going on keeps you tracking correctly.
That said, sometimes people aren’t fully aware of what they’re thinking or feeling. Or they might fudge the truth. For that, see #5…
#5 Study the human mind and behaviour
People are complex and everyone’s unique, but we do still tend to follow templates of behaviour or fit into certain personality frameworks. In other words, for all our complexity and uniqueness as humans, we can be downright predictable. Understanding that predictability tends to require study and paying attention to patterns of human behaviour. (Again, we’re back to patterns. Did I mention they were a huge part of human telepath and empath skills?)
Read what you can about psychology and human behaviour. Study sociology, which provides a different and broader perspective. Look into the principles of counselling which will give you insight into human suffering and how people tend to react to it.
The more you know about the human mind and our shared tendencies of behaviour, the more you can anticipate and understand on a micro, single-person level.
Just be careful not to get haughty with all that knowledge. A nice antidote is #6…
You need to genuinely care about people. Granted there are people out there who have that cold and uncanny understanding of people to take advantage of them, but that’s not you. (Also, it’s not me, so I can’t offer that angle.)
In my experience, the quest to better understand people is vastly aided by caring about said people. What you care about, you will invest in, even when it’s challenging. What you care about, you’ll make a point to remember, which is helpful when trying to build context and see patterns.
What you care about, you want to do your best to understand. And that’s what this is all about.
So amp up your caring. Realise that each person is like their own little world. Know that they are deep, complex, and probably worth knowing better.
Of course, none of these tips actually work like telepathy or empathy. They don’t “take a reading” of someone’s current mental or emotional state. They can’t tell you exactly what someone is thinking or feeling.
We’re still human.
But by implementing strategies like constructing context, piecing together patterns, and soliciting feedback, you are building a broader understanding of those around you. That allows you to be more effective at picking up on what’s going on with someone in the moment and know, as best as possible, what they’re thinking or feeling.
These tips are the training that gets you to the point of being telepath and empath-like. They hone your intuition, improve your knowledge of human behaviour, increase your empathy, and over time, make you smarter when it comes to relationships.
Now to wait for the next book to come out…