Looking for ways to better understand your legislative colleagues, work on relationships or improve interactions with people who hold opposing views? The answer may be as simple as asking them about their daily lives.
But here’s the key: You then must sit back and actually listen.
What is obvious to you is obvious to you. And that is theory of mind in a nutshell. —Author and developmental molecular biologist John Medina
Developmental molecular biologist John Medina gave this advice at the 2021 NCSL Legislative Summit during a session titled “Brain Rules: Mind Over Matters.”
Medina, author of the book “Brain Rules,” delved into the prosocial theory of mind, which he defined as the ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents and desires to oneself and to others—and to understand that others may have different beliefs, desires and intents.
In other words, Medina says, you are not the center of the universe.
“What is obvious to you is obvious to you,” he says. “And that is theory of mind in a nutshell.”
He also spoke of social decentering, or the social cognitive process by which humans take into consideration the thoughts, feelings, behaviors and dispositions of other people without neglecting self-care. Medina says decentering usually deepens social relationships and serves as an observational role model for kids: “It’s another way of saying, ‘The world really doesn’t revolve around you. Get over it.’”
But, Medina adds, there are things you can do right now to improve your prosocial theory of mind skills and thus directly affect your ability to handle deteriorating relationships.
First, Medina says, practice the “daily life” exercise, developed by a Harvard researcher: Find someone you don’t know well, the more different from you the better. Take them to a low-risk informal venue—coffee or lunch, for example—and strike up an initial conversation. “Ask them, ‘What is your daily life like?’ and don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’ and start focusing the conversation on some aspect of your life.” Just listen.
Support, Don’t Shift
Medina also suggests practicing support responses, rather than shift responses, in which you shift a conversation from one person’s priorities to your own. A support response, Medina says, shows you are listening, and if someone has a different perspective from your own, you’ll be able to hear it.
“Unfortunately, the support response is rare, the shift response is common,” he says. “Not surprisingly, people like to talk about themselves, and there’s a great reason for that. When you talk about yourself, your brain gives you what we call a ‘dopamine lollipop.’” Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward.
According to Medina, 60% of shift responses during live conversations and 80% of social media-based conversations are self-focused. “Most people who do shift responses and get their dopamine lollipop and talk about themselves all the time don’t know that they do it,” he adds.
To address this, Medina suggests a simple, straightforward task: “Get out a notepad and monitor the number of times you engage the shift and support responses throughout the day,” he says. “The number might surprise you. Then adjust your percentage to favor support responses—and by golly, this will take some time.”
He also recommends writing a 300-word gratitude letter to someone living who has meant a great deal to you, describing how that person influenced you and how it affects your life today. Then grab a box of tissues. “Read the letter aloud with the person and then discuss,” Medina says. “Good luck not crying. Because what it does is, it socially decenters you.”
And the rewards are long-lasting, Medina says, pointing to evidence-based research from the University of Pennsylvania. “If you just do it once, results of a gratitude letter’s social decentering significantly increase the writer’s happiness index—which is something you can measure,” he says. “The positive effects were still evident one month later.”
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.