Your brain does this every day, all day long; it makes groups smarter and relationships stronger - s
Mentalizing is like mind-reading. But, since we can't actually read minds, it's the closest we come. Put another way, mentalizing is our ability to know, or guess at, people's reasons for what they do. It helps us understand why. Mentalizing uses observations - things we see and hear - to tell us what is (probably) in people's minds, which we can't. We mentalize in all situations involving other people, from the most mundane wait in the subway station to the buzz of messaging a potential date from Tindr. In a subway station, mentalizing is automatic, unconscious; in dating, it is active, conscious, the focus of attention. In any situation, mentalizing helps us try to understand whatever we might need to understand about the minds of the people around us. And, that this is only the half of it.
The other half of mentalizing is you. That's right, you. You have a mind, too, right? Mentalizing is what helps you sort out that mind of yours. Why would you need help with that, you ask? Shouldn't you be able read your own mind? Well, let's think about that.
Have you ever had moments where you asked myself, "Why did I do that?!? What was I thinking??" Have your decisions ever gotten in the way of your own goals? Have you ever felt guilty for hurting someone you care deeply about? If not, bravo to you. If you're like the rest of us, those are the situations that show, we can't read even our own minds. To be honest, it wouldn't make sense for us to know everything on our minds - that would require too much effort and attention! So, mentalizing is the brain's shortcut. Mentalizing tracks both mental states, like goals, emotions, thoughts, desires, etc., and physical ones. We mentalize ourselves in the background most of the time, but actively if we need to.
I hope you see how mentalizing is one ability that can be pointed in two different directions. We use it on ourselves and on other people. Since we are either alone or with other people all the time, we are mentalizing all the time. We do it from the day we are born; we get better at it across childhood. As you read this, you realize that you yourself have decades of experience in mentalizing, even though you didn't know that's what is was called before today.
What's the point?
What good is knowing about mentalizing? Let's start with relationships. Any relationships that matter will need strong mentalizing, whether they are romantic, business, family relationships. Here's why: since we can't read minds, miscommunication and misunderstanding are facts of life. Successful relationships can't avoid misunderstanding, so fixing misunderstanding requires getting a better understanding of what you missed - or what your partner missed in you - which requires mentalizing.
How can mentalizing make groups smarter? Because the best groups have members that think differently from one another; otherwise, everyone is redundant with the leader. Then, in order to get people to contribute their unique ideas, to be more creative, more willing to go out on a limb, they need to feel safe. People tend not to toss out a potentially awesome but risky idea if they anticipate being criticized. They tend not to point out a crucial flaw, or a way to do things more efficiently, if they anticipate being dismissed. To make people feel safe in a group, understand them. Understand their point of view. Make them feel like you 'get' it. That is the essence of mentalizing.
When people mentalize us, we feel seen and heard - think of how a young child, after falling off his bike, feels a bit better when his mother says, "Oh, that must hurt!" with her hand over her mouth. Research bears out the idea that mentalizing is vital to group productivity. One study showed that business groups with a higher percentage of women are more productive. Why? Women, on average, are more considerate and nurturing of others, they think more about social relationships. In short, they are better mentalizers than men (remember, on average).
To sum it up, if you have relationships with people, or want some, or if your work involves groups, mentalizing is a skill you need, one you have but didn't know was there, and one that gets better with practice, so go give it a try! Want to learn more? Check back for updates to my blog, or ask me a question.