Since 1998 I have been involved with crisis response with distress lines and more recently with victim services. One of my responsibilities was training and mentoring volunteers to support people on some of the most challenging days in their lives. One of the biggest messages I tried to instill in the volunteers I trained, was “Seek to Understand – Avoid Assumptions”. Why is this important?
All of us have had unique experiences in our lives and from these experiences, we have created an idea of how the world and people work. Our view of the world is just as unique as our experiences. As my former volunteer trainees can attest, I love using the analogy of siblings. If you have siblings or close cousins consider the environment in which you were raised. In many cases, you generally had the same or similar environment as your siblings. Now consider times when you have been in a similar situation as a sibling. Did you make the same decisions? Were your reasons for your decision the same? In most cases, the answer was a strong NO. So if we are not able to have the same decision-making process as those who have been raised with similar values, and environment then how is it possible for us to KNOW what is going on for someone who has probably had a vastly different experience with life. We can’t. When it comes to being present from others, we can’t assume that we totally understand what is happening for them. What we can do is ask questions to understand. Get clarity on the meaning of words that they may change their tone on when talking with you. Just like we are the only experts for ourselves, each individual is an expert on themselves.
How often do we find ourselves in a heated chain of texts on social media or text? There is an added layer of complexity when it comes to communication in text and on social media. So often we just write and send, or passively read what has been written, without going and looking back at the context. One word can have a different meaning for different people and can cause a conversation to go off the rails very quickly. When we notice things have gone in an unexpected direction, what is our first instinct? In general, it is to stand our ground and even attack.
I am going to invite you to try out a radical idea. There is no guarantee that it will work every time. Whether a conversation was in text or verbal, what do you think would happen if you said, “I noticed the conversation is going in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I would really like to understand your side and figure out how we can get back on track. What does….. mean for you, because it means….. to me.” If you are not sure where it went off track asking what the other person wants you to understand and then getting clarification if it doesn’t quite jive with how you understand the world.
What would be your reaction if someone said that to you in a conversation? How would you feel? How would that shift your impression of that person?
When we take the time to seek to understand how others experience the world we expand our own horizons and are much more open to hearing other experiences of the world and life. This is a rare gift, not only to the person you are offering it but also to yourself.
Don Miguel Ruiz speaks about this in his book the Four Agreements when he states Don’t Make Assumptions. Essentially saying that we create our own drama because we are assuming how others think, feel and are. So much misunderstanding can be mitigated when we take the time to ask someone what is going on for them and finding out the deeper things rather than assuming or leaving conversations at the surface answers. For those who have read and thought about what is written in this book, you will know that although these concepts are simple, they are not easy to actually do. They take time and they take effort and patience on our part because not everyone is willing to try back. When we remember that the only thing we can do is to try our best and extend that courtesy, some amazing things have the potential to happen.
How can you seek to understand others as you move forward? Feel free to add your comments, experiences and impressions in the comments section or the chat.
Added Reading on this subject:
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBielOoXDuE&list=PLV6IVEQAlu9rC92-LFJ0EjViq-9BYGj-o