Fellowship and Connection

How Using Theory of Mind Can Help You Make Newcomers Feel At Home

Joseph Shrand, M.D., is the author of Do You Really Get Me?: Finding Value in Yourself and Others Through Empathy and Connection.

What Is Theory of Mind?

So how do we know what others really feel about us? What happens when we say that someone really “gets” us?

I’m going to introduce you to a rather clunky psychological term: “Theory of Mind,” or ToM. In short, this is the brain tool that gives us the capacity to appreciate another person’s perspective. We know how rewarding it is to feel empathy for another person and to have others empathize with our feelings. This couldn’t happen if we didn’t have the capacity to “read” other people’s facial expressions, body language, and the content and tone of their verbal messages. When we do that, we can make an assessment about what they’re thinking and feeling—how they see us and the world—at any given time. This is Theory of Mind.

Think about your own life. At work, a boss’s smile and nod of appreciation create a very different feeling in you than a look that suggests disapproval. On a date with someone you enjoy, positive verbal and nonverbal cues from that person create a very different feeling than cues suggesting the person isn’t interested in seeing you again. These simple examples show how through ToM, people influence us, just as we influence everyone with whom we come in contact.

Which brings us to one of the most important messages in my book, Do You Really Get Me?: You control no one, but you influence everyone.

We use Theory of Mind to interpret subtle and overt cues to instantly assess how another person is thinking or feeling. But what we’re really wondering is: “What the heck are ya thinking or feeling about me?” This distinction is critical. ToM not only enables us to assess the perspectives of others, it also becomes the entry point to how we see ourselves through the eyes of others. And how we see ourselves is influenced by how we think other people see us.

The more we understand how Theory of Mind works, the better we can use it to do two important things:

• positively influence how others perceive us; and correspondingly,
• positively influence how others think and feel about themselves.

It feels good to make another person feel valued, as good perhaps, as when someone makes us feel valuable. We create a feedback loop: the more we make others feel valued, the more valuable we feel—and vice versa. We can do this at any time by using ToM effectively; not as someone who is broken, but as someone who deserves to feel connected to other people.

And the really good news is that we aren’t doing this just to make ourselves feel better. When we make the choice to enhance someone’s value, we are essentially becoming a benefactor to that person. A person who feels valued not only respects, values, and trusts this benefactor in return, but is also much more likely to enjoy life and spread that enjoyment to the world. The best way to truly become a happier person is to help someone else feel the same way.

Theory of Mind in Practice

Have you ever been to a social gathering where you find some people you just love talking with, much more than the others who are there? Notice why? It’s not just because they may be attractive. It’s usually because they seem to really “get” you, and you “get” them. They make eye contact, listen to your stories attentively, laugh or nod at the right time, or reach out and pat your arm as a gesture of understanding. These kinds of people help you feel like a welcome, important part of the group. Their empathetic response makes you feel great, and you want to be around them even more. What they have done is tap into your own ToM, probably without even knowing that’s what they’re doing.

People with highly active ToM are more likely to have a high “EQ,” or emotional quotient, a measurement of emotional intelligence. The EQ concept was brought into public awareness in 1995 with the publication of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence. It refers to the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to carefully discern different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. Studies have shown that a higher EQ predicts career satisfaction and success, and even higher incomes compared to lower-EQ counterparts. What’s at the root of EQ? Theory of Mind.

So now you know the basic mechanism of how the human mind operates, and you can use it any time you want. In a social gathering where many people might not know anyone, you can already imagine how most people are feeling. Think about it. They feel just like you do—in need of making a connection so they feel part of the group.

Try this exercise: turn on the TV or pull up YouTube, and watch a clip of a TV show or movie with the sound off. See if you can figure out, just by looking at the faces and body posture of the actors, what they are feeling, which character feels part of the group, and which one may feel left out of the group. Watch it again with the sound on to see how accurately you guessed. The better you are at understanding what someone else is thinking or feeling, the better you’ll be at making someone feel a member of the group you may just start yourself.

Dr. Joseph Shrand is an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, an Assistant Child Psychiatrist on the medical staff of Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Medical Director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), a brand new intervention unit for at-risk teens which is part of the highly respected High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, MA.

Dr. Shrand has served as Medical Director of the Child and Adolescent outpatient program at McLean Hospital, has run several inpatient psychiatric units, and is currently also the Medical Director of the Adult Inpatient Psychiatric Unit for High Point Treatment Centers in Plymouth. He is also the Medical Director of Road to Responsibility, a community-based program that tends to adults with significant developmental disabilities.

Dr. Shrand routinely gives lectures on Theory of Mind and its application to re-conceptualize the behaviors of patients. He gave a similar lecture, to broad acclaim, at the 2008 Annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in Chicago.

Among colleagues and staff, he is affectionately called “Doctor Joe,” as he was “Joe” in the original children’s cast of the PBS series
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