After 40 years I assumed I could read my mother-in-law’s mind. By then she was in her late eighties, had become vague and forgetful, but her sense of the absurd was undiminished, possibly even enhanced. We went out for lunch and after our hors-d’ourvres and main courses, we negotiated to go halves on the pudding – a crème brûlé. The dessert arrived with the necessary two spoons and I then watched as she nimbly ate her way across the crunchy sugary bit, leaving the underlying custardy part for me. I felt somewhat cheated – the taste of the burnt sugar was something I cherished – and in response to my challenge, she reminded me of the deal we had struck earlier.  As far as she was concerned, her half was always going to be the top bit. Why on earth had I assumed we would be sharing along the more conventional vertical rather than horizontal lines? I had simply second guessed wrong.

I second guessed incorrectly but rather differently when cycling home one evening through Richmond Park. It was dusk so the main gates were closed to cars, allowing the resident deer to roam as they pleased (and they did!). Way ahead I saw a woman riding slowly, wobbling back and forth across the road and looking over her shoulder as though checking for something. With no one else about I assumed she was concerned about me, so when I caught her up I cycled on the other side of the road, overtook quickly, and to reassure said ‘good evening’ as I passed. She looked truly frightened and there was a quick change of plan.  She said she was terrified of being attacked by the deer and asked if I could accompany her as she rode to the exit. This I did. At the gate she thanked me and we went our separate ways. In those few seconds of overtaking I had been converted from male threat to guardian angel. In this day and age, who would have second guessed that?

But wrong second guessing goes on all the time. How often is a woman’s “no” taken as a “yes”. And, of course, in conversation we regularly second guess the minds of others. So, even before an idea is actually expressed, we nod with approval, mutter “yes, or worse still, complete the speaker’s sentences for them, putting words into their mouths. Infuriating.

Despite such examples, we probably guess right just as often. But here guessing is probably based not on the more obvious and immediate clues but on something subtler. As a doctor I was trained to read between the lines, to listen carefully to what was said and how it was expressed (choice of words, weighting of phrases, body language), looking to see if there were other messages. My job was to latch onto those hints that indicated for instance joy, sadness, anxiety, confusion, helplessness etc. There was a real need for such guessing because so often people do not or cannot share their feelings in ‘so may words’. The capacity to accurately second guess is a valuable skill, no more so than when sympathy or empathy is needed. And here the results of getting things wrong can be catastrophic.

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