Profiling for Intent:

When Our Thoughts Run Away From Us

As discussed in her piece for goop about learning to see our blind spots when it comes to love, life strategist Suzannah Galland has a very uncanny ability to profile people to fully understand their intentions. And one of the remarkable things she’s discovered over her years of helping people get a better handle on navigating life, is that when it comes to conflict, both parties generally have the same worries and concerns, just from different points of view. Through controlling “mind quakes,” as she calls them, and employing empathy, she describes how we can all get control of our thoughts before difficult situations spiral out of control based on fully emotional, worst-case-scenario projections.

Close your eyes and imagine you are in a faraway country in the late hours of the night. Your purse has been stolen, your friends vanished into a crowd somewhere, and suddenly you find yourself alone, wandering in the dead of darkness trying to find your hotel, unable to read the foreign signs. Your senses heightened, you expect to meet danger at every corner; your heart is pounding so hard you can barely hear yourself think.

You pass a stark red door. Wait. Wasn’t that the door you passed ten minutes ago? Or is it another? The sound of dogs barking in the distance unnerves yet comforts you at the same time. Then out of nowhere, footsteps creep up behind you. You pause, frozen in time. The hairs on the nape of your neck stand erect. One. Two. Three. Slowly, you turn around. You peer down a dark alley. No one is there. You continue to walk ahead, watching carefully where you tread. Even the moonlight is shrouded by a dark fog. Pat, pat…you hear them again. Were they footsteps behind you? In front? Were they the echo of your footsteps? Or, is it all in your mind?

“When we feel emotionally threatened, at work, or with finances, or in our relationships, our first reaction takes place in our mind.”

Even if this has never happened to you, it’s most likely that you’ve experienced the mental version of it, or what I call a “mind quake.” A mind quake is a head game we play with ourselves. It’s when we let runaway thoughts consume us to the point of acting on them, sometimes foolishly.

When we feel emotionally threatened, at work, or with finances, or in our relationships, our first reaction takes place in our mind. Not knowing all the details, we take the liberty of filling in the blanks with one thought and then another. Once those creative juices get flowing, we’re easily on our way to thinking the absolute worst. Our thoughts are in a bad place, and left alone with them, we manage to spawn a fantasy hell.

An unanswered phone call turns into “I know he’s cheating on me.”

An odd tone of voice from your BFF becomes, “I know she told my boyfriend about Pete from work.”

A preoccupied boss who seems to be avoiding you translates into, “He doesn’t want to promote me. He’s going to promote Sarah. I just know it.” Or, even worse, “I’m going to get fired.” In these emotionally driven situations, it’s easy to let our thoughts run the show without ever realizing that we grounded these thoughts on a fear-based presumption. We imagined, invented, assumed, or fabricated a thought because of a nuance or a suspicion—until we managed to build an entire scenario around what has now become a core belief. We’re convinced our scenario is true because we’ve analyzed the heck out of it, and we’re trusting our perceptions.

“We imagined, invented, assumed, or fabricated a thought because of a nuance or a suspicion—until we managed to build an entire scenario around what has now become a core belief.”

Once we have our little scenario in mind, our thoughts grow and expand, creating pressure to act, like a dam ready to burst. Our husband’s failure to pick up the phone goes from “he never takes a lunch” to “he’s cheating on me” to “he wants a divorce” to “I’m going to take him for everything he has.” The dangerous progression leads to misguided and emotion-fueled actions that are capable of creating chaos and drama and, worst of all, sabotaging what’s in our best interest.

Over-analyzing situations and setting up conversations and confrontations around false beliefs and unproven scenarios is one of the most destructive things we do to ourselves. Whether based on a fear or triggered by someone else’s fear, our scenario becomes the subject of our conversation. We spend hours setting up ways to talk to someone we love, work with, or care for based on false assumptions.

When we’re finally ready to confront the person who has become the source of our fear, we base our entire line of questioning around a fabricated fact. It dictates our conversation, and it influences our decisions, our work, and how we love. This fabricated scenario that exists only in our heads is what I call the ultimate mind quake.

“Over-analyzing situations and setting up conversations and confrontations around false beliefs and unproven scenarios is one of the most destructive things we do to ourselves.”

We do this from a desire to test our perceptions. We need to know whether they are true, and so we start to cleverly position ourselves according to our preconceived idea. In turn, our fear projects a scenario that does not exist, and before you know it we’ve started a game of chaos. While our true intuition is often spot on, a faulty perception based in fear can completely undermine the gut and get our minds reeling in the worst way.

So, how do you stop the spiral? Escaping a fear-based head game requires one main ingredient, and that’s empathy. When we can get ourselves to understand how our main nemesis, whether friend or foe, is really feeling, we’ve suddenly gained a huge advantage.

Being empathetic requires one simple step: Know that the person you are so worked up about—the primary source of your grief—is in one way or another experiencing the same issue that you are. That’s it!

Once you understand this, you’re no longer having a conversation inside your head. Your approach to the conflict, your conversation, can be centered on supporting the other person, a far better response than going into crisis mode.

“Escaping a fear-based head game requires one main ingredient, and that’s empathy.”

I am amazed by how many clients walk into my office, alarms blazing and desperately seeking answers. As I probe deeper into the issue at hand, they usually ask me to remotely profile the person they are having a conflict with. Time and again, I discover that both parties share the exact same issue but from a different perspective. It’s been an incredible discovery that is reaffirmed each and every time I profile. The following is a perfect example.

David, a client of mine, is a senior designer at an interior design firm in Chicago. He is an accomplished designer and very well liked, despite his artistic mood swings. Betty, the COO (chief operating officer), oversees the entire company and answers only to the CEO. She is overworked, besieged by ongoing demands, and responsible for hiring staff.

Betty had recently hired Janice to be the new creative director. She was to be David’s immediate boss. A couple of weeks later, he called me angry, exasperated at the notion of working with Janice, who he referred to as an incompetent imbecile. He started to talk incessantly, shrieking, “I’ll leave the company. It’s her or me! She doesn’t know what she’s doing! She’s an idiot. I’m going into Betty’s office right now to tell her that she has to get rid of Janice, or I quit!”

Part of the solution was to calm down David and remotely profile Janice. I sensed she was erratic, unfocused, and scared of being exposed. My next job was to find out who she was afraid of. I had a sense that it was the company COO, and, indeed, Janice was afraid of Betty. I decided to add another remote profile and look at Betty. She too was consumed, overwhelmed, and fraught about hiring Janice, which she now believed was a huge mistake. But Betty’s biggest concern was losing her top designer, David.

David and Betty both shared the same issue from a different perspective. I cautioned David to remain calm, and instead think about how he could be a greater support for Janice. Taking my advice, he promptly went in to see Betty and was kind and supportive while letting her know that he would be there for her in any way he could. Within three days, Betty fired Janice. Betty let David know that she feared he was going to quit, and he in turn said that he was thinking about leaving too—same issue, completely different perspective.

Once I gave David a clear profile of what Betty was going through, it was easy to direct him to take a more sensitive approach to her needs. All he had to do was consider how he would want to be treated regarding his situation. The true scenarios were, after all, pretty much one and the same.

“Nothing is more authentic than honesty when it comes from a place of empathy.”

So let’s apply this to the idea of asking your boss for a promotion. You hesitate because you’re afraid she won’t consider you (assumption #1); you don’t want to bother her (#2); she’ll avoid you, or worse acknowledge everyone else around you (#3); she’ll berate you for giving her undue stress (#4); or she’ll criticize your purpose for asking in the first place and ask you to leave (#5). Maybe you’ve asked for something similar before, so your assumptions are grounded in history. Before you know it, you’re in the room with her positing yourself with an overwhelmingly desperate story (and desperation reeks of fear), rambling about how you deserve the promotion. You even stoop to lie in order to get what you need. Based on the five presumptions you’ve created, what chance do you have, after all? The “truth” will only be rejected, right?

What you really need is data. No one’s going to listen if you just ramble. And all of us tend to ramble when we’re emotionally upset.

Let’s recast the scenario based on some new data—the belief that the person you’re in a potential conflict with has the same issue as you.

Your boss has issues regarding her position with the company, and these issues have nothing to do with you. So you replace your five presumptions with this new perspective and consider your approach. Now your job is to discover how you can communicate that you wish to take care of her needs, too.

Here’s where empathy comes in. Ask yourself, “What could she be afraid of when it comes to her position or division? Does she fear being taken advantage of or excluded?” Maybe she needs to trust that you are doing your best to do the extra necessary tasks or to trust that you will support her position.” What is it she needs from you?

Base the answer to the last question around what you need (acknowledgment, a formal promise, a time line, advice to ensure that she trusts you so that she feels more confident promoting you).

The Empathetic Process & Technique

In order to practice empathy and keep mind quakes from steering our conversations, it’s helpful to break down the empathetic process into six steps.

1. Write out the concern.

My boss may not promote me.
My boss may fire me.
I may never get what I want from her.

2. Question these belief(s).

How do you know this to be true? Is this knowledge based on fear, gossip, or past experience?

Asking hypothetical questions will help you ground those fantasy scenarios.

If you know your beliefs to be true and you have run out of advocates, then perhaps it’s time to leave and look for another job with your ideal position. It’s likely that nothing less will do.

3. Assume your boss has the same issue.

Let’s imagine that your boss has issues about her position in the company. What might be her concern? What does she need from you? How can you support her in a more sensitive way to help her see how you feel too? If the roles were reversed, what would you need?

4. Set the stage to have a healthy conversation.

An empathetic, honest, supportive, and open-ended question will help you get more of a response than a yes or no. It will connect you, rather than widen an existing gap or create a new separation. It might also reveal your boss’s issue. Nothing is more authentic than honesty when it comes from a place of empathy. It disarms us and takes away the fear from both parties. It stops red flags and triggers from popping up and it gets everyone out of the game of chaos and into meaningful dialogue.

5. Imagine a clean whiteboard.

Once you’ve established your conversation starter, take a deep breath and imagine a whiteboard in your mind. Written on this whiteboard are all your fears and concerns and assumptions. Now take an eraser and wipe out all your fears and concerns. See them fade away and feel them slowly diminish. You are letting go of fear.

6. Start the conversation.

You are now ready to ask for what you need from a position of confidence and strength. Your perception is clear.

You can see how easily we become out of balance and out of control. As things become more erratic, we have a tendency to become more serious and more dramatic, and each decision that we make becomes a life and death experience. We are so afraid to step outside the box of what we know. We’re afraid of going deeper, even more so of facing things head on. We’re afraid of what we might lose.

We do risk everything when we face our fears. We risk the order and stability of our relationships, although with this comes an interesting paradox: We seldom risk the love of those who love us if we are honest. We gain their respect. Even if there are storms of reaction, at the very least we aren’t fighting or denying our feelings.

Truth—not fear—will always lead you to a deeper insight into whatever is going on. The best-kept secret of all is that the person you are in conflict with is having the same issue as you. I guarantee it. Maybe she acts out in a different way, but the underlying issue is always there.

When we approach others with perceptions based on truth, the possibilities of getting what we need from all our relationships are truly infinite.