I’m not particularly spiritual. I tend to think of spirituality as a set of metaphors for psychological concepts—usually schemas representing social roles and archetypes or representations of mental states. Thus, when someone tells me they can read my astrological signs to divine deep truths about my personality, I translate that into something closer to reality: that there are constellations of personality characteristics that tend to associate in particular patterns, these have been studied by highly perceptive scholars, over generations they have been codified into a system or model, and by using this model a talented reader can tell you something surprising about yourself (based on a few hints). This is a true skill and it can be remarkable; it is not to be diminished.
The fact that it’s nothing spiritual is important. Though the model isn’t necessarily factually logical, it has a kind of intuitive reason. And that reason can be learned; intuition itself is a skill that can be practiced. Like any skill, it has its uses.
The clairvoyant arts include astrology, tarot, palmistry, numerology, cleromancy, rune reading, and more. At the core of all of these is a concept called “cold reading”. That is the ability to use very little information about a person in order to infer knowledge about them and to use the person’s responses to peer still deeper into who they are. In a short time, you can demonstrate extraordinary powers of perception.
It’s more than just parlor tricks and entertainment. If you truly wish to connect with someone, then skills like this are particularly useful. Who wouldn’t want the ability to quickly size up a person, to peer within and see what peers back? For gaining shared understanding and connection, for testing a person against your relationship standards, for healing and commiseration, and for learning about people in general—learning these skills presents unique insights into humanity.
Empathy and Intuition
The foundation of these skills—and of communication and connection between any two people—is empathy and intuition. These are the abilities to feel what another person feels and to implicitly sense truths about a person. Really these are good listening skills, but turned up to 11.
It’s an attempt to align your mental state with that of your partner. Persistence hunters in the Kalahari Desert hunt the African antelope known as the kudu by using a kind of empathy. If they lose their quarry, they’ll enter into a mental state similar to that of the kudu in order to intuit where that kudu might have headed, and then they’ll follow. Speaking with a person is similar in many ways—if you want to truly understand what they’re saying, where they’re going conceptually, then you have to get into their mind and follow the path they’ve taken.
There’s a translation issue that occurs whenever two people communicate. Words are tools to convert thoughts into something that can be grasped by another, but they’re imperfect. What one person says and another hears are necessarily two different things, subject to each person’s unique understanding of the world, of each other, and of the meanings and uses of those words. Too often people listen to what a person says but miss the meaning behind the words. This is subtext. Empathy and intuition are additional tools that allow you to more closely bridge the gap between two minds in order to read that subtext, and thus to help a person feel truly understood.
How It Works
Empathy and intuition themselves aren’t some secret science, though they are somewhat arcane and mysterious. In essence, they’re experience.
When we first learn a new skill, we have difficulty understanding all the moving components. Think of a new sport or art—at first you’re lost in the technical terms, the movements, the style—but with repetition you begin to see the patterns that underlie the endeavor. You see the relationships between concepts, the if/then consequences, and given one piece of information you can guess what might follow. The same is true of empathy and intuition.
Though unique, each person is not so different from the next. We all exhibit patterns that repeat within our lives and from person to person. Most of us fall in love and out again the same way, we feel stress for the same reasons, we often follow the same life paths that have been set up from the beginning of time, we have the same tells that reveal our hidden emotions, we heal from wounds the same ways, and on and on. In essence, all human stories are variations on the same theme. We’re walking clichés1.
Thus, by widening our own personal experience and by listening intently to the stories around us, we begin to see the patterns of human behavior.
1. That’s not to say there’s nothing to differentiate us. Like new art based on established themes, we all have a unique style, and we represent a unique progression of cultural norms. Many of Shakespeare’s stories were old plots by the time he put his particular pen to paper, yet we still celebrate his unique expression of them.
Any skill can be practiced. Intuition and empathy are no exception. And practice in these skills is simple: make predictions about the people you meet and test the accuracy of your guesses based on their responses.
Making predictions about people is actually a great conversational skill because the other person will usually respond with more information—either with surprise at your accuracy or by correcting you and telling you more about themselves in the process. Thus, you can help a person open up, usually without actually asking any questions.
It goes something like this in a conversation between YOU and THEM:
YOU: “You strike me as the type of person who enjoys going out and meeting a lot of people.”
THEM: “Yes, I love meeting new people!”
THEM: “Actually I’m quite a homebody. I’d rather read a good book and recharge from my work day.
YOU: “Interesting. When you told that funny story, I actually got a sense of frustration from you. Is there something there that bothers you?”
THEM: “Wow, yeah. Actually it was a frustrating event; I guess I just try to see the good in anything. But this one thing really bothered me…”
YOU: “You seem like you’re an elementary school teacher.”
THEM: “I am, actually! What makes you say that?”
THEM: “I’m not, I’m a lawyer. But what makes you say that?”
YOU: “You have a bubbly, entertaining personality and a way of breaking down complex thoughts so that they’re easy to understand.”
That last example also shows how to reason through your guesses. When you first start out, you’ll be making largely random guesses. You’ll fail a lot (which is perfectly healthy). But as you learn to associate different concepts with each other, you’ll become more and more accurate. You’ll be better able to justify your thought process (though it’s good to remember that a large part of your thought process will be intuitive, explicit, and subconscious, and thus inexplicable; that’s to be expected).
The example also shows how to respond if someone challenges you on your guess. Importantly, even if the conclusion is wrong, your reasons for making the guess and the act of making the guess are never wrong. In other words, it’s perfectly appropriate to guess wrong sometimes—this happens to everyone, even to the most accurately intuitive people. You’ll also start to discover one of the funny hidden tricks of intuition: when you make a collection of correct and incorrect guesses, people tend to remember mostly the correct guesses and ignore the incorrect ones. We strive to be understood, most of all, and tend to forget when we’re not.
Taking It Too Far
Empathy and intuition are powerful tools. Like anything powerful, they must be used appropriately.
Consider the following scenario: you’re in a bar and you’ve just started a conversation with a group of women you’ve never met before. Pretty soon, you have an intuitive sense about one of the women, so you say to her, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I get the sense that you’re an elementary school teacher.” The group responds with surprise and some trepidation, “How did you know that?” And you push further, “Actually, now that I think about it, you’re probably a teacher for 5th graders.” The tone in the group suddenly shifts, “Do we know you? That’s actually kind of creepy…who are you?”
That scenario is a recreation from my memory of an event that happened to me some years ago. It illustrates the following point: intuition and empathy are not skills that you should use indiscriminately; rather, the depth of clairvoyance you display should match the level of comfort you have established with the people you’re reading. Too much accuracy too early is creepy; even making incorrect guesses too early can be a little strange. So start off making guesses infrequently, and don’t stack one reading upon the next but give them time to sink it.
When you do it right and give people the time to internalize your intuitive and empathetic guesses, you can make an incredibly strong connection. That’s not to say that all interactions will trend this way. Sometimes people simply don’t respond well to being read—they’re closed off, suspicious, not introspective enough to determine whether your guesses are correct, or not expressive enough to give you any real clues about them. Sometimes people are fairly straightforward to read—they fit into clear, common patterns and, though readings can be instructive, they aren’t particularly surprising to you. And then you have the amazing, special cases—people who are willing to delve deeply into themselves, who use your readings to read you back, who open up to vulnerability. The last are the types of people who might allow themselves to unlock pent-up emotions; you may find them crying on your shoulder or being overwhelmed with awe. Those are fun, but rare.
Any powerful tool has the potential for misuse. It’s important to remember how you learned these skills—through application of methodological principles and practice—and not through any supernatural means. It would be unethical to claim special powers, or to indicate that your information is derived from some source other than human behavior.
In truth, all you’re doing is holding yourself up as a mirror so that your target can better understand themselves. Your task is to make yourself a better mirror, not to convince your target that you’re looking beyond (believe me, the sense of awe and surprise is not diminished by non-spiritual explanations for your abilities; you will still achieve powerfully positive responses from a rational mindset).
Additionally, your intentions should be aligned with your actions. It’s easy to use faux spirituality to build a sense of connection with somebody, if your end goal is to get in their pants and in their beds. I would argue, though, that it’s much healthier and easier to achieve true connection and to use these skills only sparingly to help you along that path—letting your partner know exactly what your intentions are and letting them choose that connection, too.
Keeping It Fresh
Empathy and intuition are finely-tuned skills. Though the foundations will remain, refinement will tend to crumble into rudiment over time. These skills must be practiced regularly in order to be maintained. Don’t be surprised if after a few months of introversion, for example, you are less able to read people. Practice will restore those skills.