Let’s take a couple of minutes to break down why making assumptions is such an easy trap to fall into. We all know it’s a risky practice because it often causes greater misunderstanding and yet we can hardly help ourselves.
Well, as you might have guessed, the way your brain processes information is part of the problem. It turns out that making assumptions is a natural process that helps us move faster and make decisions quickly. An assumption is really a paradigm, a frame of reference, perception, or basically the way we see the world…not in terms of our literal sense of sight, but in terms of perceiving, understanding, interpreting.
So an assumption is like a mental ‘map’. Now suppose I asked you to find my home in Kansas City but gave you a map of Chicago. No matter how hard you tried or how positive you remained, trying to find my house would still end in frustration. Effort and attitude are really important, but only if you have the correct map. Does connecting with your teen or your spouse feel this way sometimes? Are you making the effort and trying to stay hopeful, but still getting the wrong outcome? Maybe it is time to challenge the accuracy of the map.
Each of us has many maps in our heads, which can be divided into two main categories: Maps that are Real and maps that are Imagined. But our brains can’t tell the difference between Real & Imagined – So we fill in the gap and believe all of it is real. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually unaware that we even have them. We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are, that we are objective. And our attitudes and behaviors grow out of those assumptions.
Let’s take a minute for a short story that Stephen Covey once shared. Imagine sitting on a quiet subway car. Then suddenly, a man and his loud rambunctious children enter and sit down beside you. Instantly the whole climate has changed as the kids begin yelling back and forth and the father closes his eyes, apparently oblivious to the whole situation. The kids begin to bump into people and still the father does nothing.
Your irritation increases, as you can’t believe that this father is so insensitive as to let his kids run wild without doing anything. Other passengers are also irritated and so finally, with measured patience and restraint, you take leadership on the subway car and ask the father if he would mind controlling his kids. It seems very appropriate; after all it takes a village, right? And you have certainly seen this before – after all, this is why schools are struggling and kids have no respect for authority anymore. It is time someone did something. Well, now the father finally speaks and says softly, “Oh you are right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Bam – we have just had our assumptions reset.
We have to work hard to overcome our brain’s natural tendency to cloud our thinking by filling in the gaps based on our perceived truths.
As parents, we love to fill in the gaps in the sparse information that we receive from our kids. When our children move into adolescence they tend to become more secretive. This secrecy is spurred on by their desire to create independence and distance. As the gap in communication widens, we as parents are prone to fill this void with assumptions as we try to make sense of their behavior. But what we believe to be true is often based on our own past experiences and this may or may not be valid for the current situation that we find ourselves in with our own child.
Our assumptions about our kid’s ability, behavior, attitude and beliefs can set up roadblocks in our communication with them and limit our ability to find options and solve problems. Assumptions often send us in the wrong direction and unfortunately we typically move forward with tremendous conviction. Our ‘mental map’ built from years of experience leads us to believe that what we are thinking ‘must be true’ and therefore there really are no other solutions.
The more aware we are of our basic assumptions and the extent to which we have been influenced by our experience, the more we can take responsibility for those assumptions, examine them, test them against reality, listen to others, and be open to their perceptions, thereby getting a larger picture and a far more objective view.
Our brains are always looking for patterns so that we can compare and draw conclusions. But instead of leaping to conclusions, we need to stop and engage our brain in a different way. Challenge assumptions by asking:
1. How confident am I?
2. What if it is not true?
When you have some time I would encourage you to get out an old-fashioned note pad and list the truths that you believe about teen culture.
Each of us makes general assumptions about this period of life based on our own experience. Some of us see teens as a threat to be feared; others see them as vulnerable and weak; and some might view them as overly capable and talented. The key is to be honest with yourself and your assumptions.
Now what if you reverse these assumptions? What if instead of seeing them as vulnerable and in need of parental support you reverse this assumption and see them as strong with untapped potential?
What if instead of seeing them as threatening and intimidating you reverse the assumption and see them as fearful and insecure?
What impact would this have on your decisions … and your ability to think differently about the challenges you are facing with your own teen?
Hopefully this will uncover some new ideas and unlock a new understanding of your own teen.
Remember that assumptions close our thinking, but by challenging assumptions and reversing them we can shift our thinking, experience greater empathy and creativity and enable us to see more opportunities and potential within our relationships.