“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov
Since none of us can truthfully claim that we never make assumptions, it’s time to replace this inaccurate ideology with a more appropriate one. I propose the following:
“Always question assumptions that give you a dramatic emotional response.”
It is when our assumptions create noise in our heads that we need to pay attention. When a situation brings about a strong emotion, than empathy and kindness need to be called upon for assistance before we can trust our interpretation. Too often, we can feel so sure of our judgement of a situation and act on our beliefs without fully entertaining other possibilities. We may think that we are helping by coming to someone’s defense, but if we have not properly questioning the other side of the story, we may be doing more than harm than good.
Consider the following common scenario. A child, let’s call him Trenton, comes running up to you. “William said I’m mean!” he cries. He is clearly agitated and hurt by the unkind words spoken about him. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have dealt with this type of accusation. A typical, familiar response might be, “You go tell William he hurt your feelings,” or “William, that’s not nice! You need to apologize.” While these types of responses are well-intentioned, they do very little in terms of helping Trenton to understand what’s actually going on inside of him. To truly help Trenton and to turn this into a learning experience, we need him to question his reaction by speaking to his heart as well as his mind. We must help him to see that he has just made an assumption and that in order for William’s accusation to be so upsetting, a part of Trenton had to actually agree with William.
Let’s back up to when Trenton comes running over upset about William calling him mean. Here is an example of how I might respond.
“Why would William say that about you, Trenton?” I’ll ask him in a neutral voice.
“He says I pushed him to the ground, but I didn’t! I was running and I bumped into him.”
“So William assumed you knocked him over on purpose, but you want him to understand that it was an accident?”
“Ya, but now he thinks I’m mean!”
“Is he right?”
“No. It’s not fair that he said that, it’s not true.”
“How did you react, Trenton? Were you calm and did you kindly apologize right away? Or did you get angry and defensive when he accused you of being mean?”
“…I got angry, but only because it wasn’t true!”
“Do you want me to let you in on a little secret, Trenton? The only person who ever really needs to know the truth, is you. When you know the truth, you do not need to get upset at all. Since you know what really happened, you can stay calm and apologize wholeheartedly. I know it doesn’t feel fair that he accused you, but by you getting angry in return, it makes it seem like you have something to hide and that you aren’t telling the truth. Accidents are going to happen. When people see you staying calm and sincerely apologizing, then it is easier for them to see the truth.”
There is a pause as Trenton digests this information, and then he asks, “But what do I do now? He already thinks I’m mean.”
“Is it true?”
“So prove it. Your actions speak louder than words, Trenton. Say sorry to him like you really mean it. That ought to be enough for him to see that you were not trying to be mean. Haven’t you ever wrongly accused someone before? This is a chance for you to think twice about your own reaction the next time something like this happens to you. It’s also a chance for you to question if what other people say is true, especially when it’s unkind. We can’t control how someone else is going to treat us or react to us. We can only control how we respond to them. You have to admit that it is fair to expect someone could be upset when they suddenly get knocked to the ground.”
“Ya, I guess that’s true.”
“Okay, let’s go see William together to clear this up.”
As we approach William, it is clear he has been expecting us. As I address him, my goal is to disarm him. “Hey, William, are you alright?” I ask in a mildly concerned voice.
At this point, William has had time to realize that he overreacted and that it really was just an accident. Otherwise, Trenton would not have wasted his time going to get a teacher involved. “I’m fine,” William responds.
My next step is to model the generosity of spirit that I wish to inspire in both of them when future misunderstandings occur. “It seems Trenton really surprised you when he accidentally knocked you to the ground. Are you still angry about that or is it okay now?” Phrasing it this way gives William the opportunity to no longer be angry. The power of choice is huge and can be used to resolve countless conflicts. Otherwise, children may not even realize that they have the option to let go.
“It’s okay,” William replies.
“Did you know that Trenton feels really bad over what happened? He wants you to know he really wasn’t trying to be mean. Did he apologize to you?”
“Did you maybe get a little too upset with him?”
“Thank you for your honesty, William. Neither one of you meant for this to happen. You were both surprised and didn’t react in the best way. It happens. How about you both clearly and calmly say sorry to each other and we can put this behind us.”
I love watching the transformation on children’s faces as they realize the truth. The ability to empathize exists in all of us. We need only call attention to it and it will appear to serve us. The more we cultivate it, the more harmonious our daily interactions with others will be. We cannot help the fact that our ego is typically on the front lines, ready to defend us. It is the ego’s job after all to keep us safe. There comes a point however when we can catch our ego before it takes over and learn to be more generous and empathetic in any given situation.
Now, some of you may be thinking that I put an awful lot of thought and effort into something rather trivial. I beg to differ. Neglecting to take the time to give these boys tools to resolve a conflict in an empathetic and peaceful manner would be a missed opportunity. Conflict resolution courses are great, but nothing serves anyone better than real life experiences. It is when we are in the moment that we can bridge the gap between theory and reality.
Accusations are so easy to make and children are often quick to jump to conclusions. Could this be partly because they are mimicking the adults in their environment? If more adults could learn to address these types of situations in this spirit, I sincerely believe we would witness a dramatic decrease in bully type behaviors. We would create a new, healthier version of “normal” for our children.
If you know yourself, then you’ll not be harmed by what is said about you.
– Arabian Proverb
***Featured image of this article generously provided by https://www.flickr.com/photos/nattu/