|Peace on the water.|
When you live (or work with) someone who has repeatedly caused chaos and drama, making negative assumptions becomes as easy for us as slipping into warm water. So how can we move forward without sliding into that comfortable assumption?
Here are some basic assumptions that Steve and I learned in the Family Connections course we took and are now helping to teach.
1. People need to interpret things in the most benign way possible.
2. There is no one or absolute truth.
3. Remember that everyone is doing the best they can in the moment.
4. Understand that everyone needs to try harder.
I've written about some of these things before, but they are such powerful concepts that they are worth reexamining.
In our primitive times, we drew heavily on history to determine the best path for survival. Last time I crossed this river, I was attacked by a lion on the other side and barely survived, therefore, I should avoid this river. Makes perfect sense.
Carry this to our modern lives, and it reads like this:
They're late? You assume they've blown you off, like they have for the past three dates.But in a complex culture, we need to be open to the idea that the context can change. People can and do change. It can take all your strength to step back and allow for a benign interpretation.
They don't come home? You assume they've fallen in with some reprobates and are doing drugs, or worse, as they did last month.
They decline your calendar invitation for a meeting on a sensitive topic? You assume they're stonewalling your project, again.
They're late? Maybe they've missed the bus. They don't come home?"But they always do this!" you protest.
Maybe they did get drunk and decided to sleep it off at a friend's place, safely.
They turn down your calendar invitation? Maybe they have a meeting beforehand that they believe will run late?
That's the problem. The troubling situation doesn't occur in isolation; you've got history.
But when someone is trying to make changes, trying to make better choices, if we respond based solely on history, then we undermine their efforts. And, even if they aren't trying to change, all we're effectively doing is borrowing stress about something we cannot change.
"Polarization" brings me to the next point: who knows the truth?
Truth is entirely subjective. It is human nature (and another primitive survival instinct) to fill in the gaps of what we know with probabilities. And, again, these are based on our history and context. It takes mental effort to pause and answer the question: what do I actually know about this?
When we realize how little we know, it enables us to approach the other person with benign, nonjudgmental curiosity:
You're running late; can we reschedule?These are responses we would give to someone who had never hurt us. But when we have a history of pain, it takes conscious effort to find and use them.
I worry when you don't come home. Are you okay?
I still want to meet with you; can you suggest an alternative time?
But it's worth it; the relationship will be strengthened. It doesn't happen quickly, but if you genuinely want a chance of reclaiming the relationship, it is the only way.
DOING OUR BEST IN THE MOMENT
When someone's "best" is shabby, it can be hard to accept that they really can't do any better. There are many reasons for us to do poorly.
Poor fit, as I mentioned in a different post: maybe they're just not where they were meant to be.
Maybe they're hungry, angry, (or, as my niece says, "hangry"),feeling low or depressed, or tired or ill*. Maybe they've had more than they can handle today (or this week, this year).
There were times, when my kids were little, when heating up a commercially made frozen casserole was the best I could do for them. Forget mincing onions or making an organic salad. I had x amount of energy and y amount of responsibility, and something had to give. I may wish I had prepared healthier meals, but I did the best I could in the moment. If it meant I had some energy left for snuggles and tickles, then I figure the trade-off was worth it. (You can't buy that in the frozen-food section!)
What I'm getting at is that, as well as forgiving ourselves, if we can extend that compassion and empathy to the people in our lives who seem to be struggling, we open the door to improvement.
Instead of simply stating, "You failed," we can say, "I believe you're doing the best you can right now. How can I help you do better?" Big difference.
With all of that being said, we need to try harder. All of us, not just the person you've identified as the one with a problem. We are creatures who learn and grow. And we are all part of the problem as well as the solution.
If the relationship is important to us (and not all relationships are worth the effort), then it is worth practicing these steps. Learn to pause before reacting. Learn to question your assumptions. Learn to honour the efforts that the other person is making.
And when you slip up (or when they slip up), take it as an opportunity to learn, and then try again.
NOT JUST FOR PROBLEM RELATIONSHIPS
In case you think these assumptions are just for "problem relationships," I want to assure you that they are skills for all relationships. My husband frequently cues me with statements like "Benign, benign, benign" to remind me to challenge my assumptions. Or I will nudge him, "non-judgmental" so he can step back from his black-and-white point of view. Or vice versa. We support each other in this.
* Around our house, we use the acronym HALT to warn us to step back, address needs, and try again later:
H = HungryIf any of these are true, our "best" efforts may not be enough in that moment. We need to allow ourselves to take time to address our personal needs, and we need to respect others who request time or space.
A = Angry
L = Low or depressed
T = Tired or sick
If we are dealing with someone else who is less aware of their personal state (e.g., a child or someone who is mentally ill), we can help by offering to address conditions where we can help (i.e., hungry or sick). We can, with love, suggest that we address touchy topics later, when all parties are rested. I do warn you that if the individual is emotionally aroused it will be very difficult for them to step away from a roiling discussion.