Friday, March 07, 2008

Curiosity, Pathway to Intimate Conversation

Curiosity, Pathway to Intimate Conversation

Many of us assume we know our partners – a lot of comedy is built around that premise – but we really don’t. Some of us say that our partners are unknowable, a line frequently spoken by men gathered, say, at a social event.

But what if you changed the assumption? What if you got that you don’t know this person you’re partnering with. What if you looked at them with new eyes saying to yourself ‘who is she?’ What if you began a conversation with him knowing that you don’t know who he is, what he is going to say, how he is going to react to what you are saying – what if you surrendered to the fact that there’s a lot to be discovered?

It would change your world. Assumptions are a firewall to intimate conversation. Assumptions keep every day looking a lot like yesterday. Assumptions are self reinforcing and, they tend to be self fulfilling prophecies.

Here’s a little story about assumptions. Within the New York City school system, some years ago, a research project was created to test the power of assumptions. A grade school class of low achievers and a grade school class of high achievers was chosen. The records of the low achievers were switched with the records of the high achievers at the end of the school year and given to their new teachers.

Guess what happened. The low achievers began to achieve more and the high achievers declined. The teacher’s expectations were driving student performance.

In any relationship assumptions and expectations are far more powerful than we imagine. Many assumptions we carry about our partners were learned long before we met our partners. Also we have ‘grafted’ on many relationship expectations from others that are not really our own. Our marriages stagnate and die because of this. We get weary trying to convince our partners we are not who they think we are.

I coach executives and executive teams. Recently an executive blamed the low performance of his company on ‘the business climate.’ I asked him why several other companies I knew that were in the same business and therefore in the same ‘climate’ were thriving. He looked at me and paused, then laughed. “Got me,” he said.

His assumptions were blinding him to the real issues in his company as well as the blind spots in his leadership.

Here’s a deadly relational sequence for you that will demonstrate the lethality of assumptions. If you want to see it graphically, rent the (now old) movie “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf?”

First make your assumptions about your partner.
Then criticize your partner for what you believe to be true about him/her.
Following your criticism you’ll probably be attacked. Defend yourself.
After your defense fails, shut down.
Within the shut down you can now show contempt for your partner.
Stonewall against any and all vulnerability.

This is called the cascading effects of making assumptions. It is a demonstration, a workshop, in the remarkable consequences of choosing to be unconscious in a relationship.

What’s the cure?
1. Admit that you do not know what you think you know about who your partner is.
2. Take 100% responsibility for your own attitudes, feelings and theories about your marriage.
3. Invite your partner into an “assumption free zone” conversation where you intentionally ask each other about values, beliefs, challenges, feelings etc.
4. Stop. Look. and Listen to what they say. Make no judgments. Decide to believe them. Use words like “really?” and “wow” and “tell me more.”

Curiosity is an attitude of love. Done right it is respectful, engaging, tender and sexy. Try it.


Kim said...

Hi Stephen, I'm one of the other High Calling Bloggers in the "marriage" catagory. Glad to see you posting again. Keep up the good work!
Blessings, Kim

Dina Eisenberg said...

Hi Stephen,

Glad to have found your blog. I especially appreciated your posts on curiosity and investigating needs. Helping others recognize the power of asking rather than assuming has been one of the most satisfying parts of my 18 year career as a mediator.

Now, I use my superpowers to help myself and other middle aged folks re-invigorate their marriages and make a smooth transition into empty-nesting and retirement through my blog.

I'll be back (my best Arnold voice)!

This Marriage Thing