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Being open: Examining assumptions about who we can learn from and what we should learn
Part 3 in "Explore Assumptions" series
Physical labels such as name tags can categorize people, which can be both helpful and harmful. The absence of labeling can lead to assumptions.
For years, I ran a cross-sector collaboration fellowship. At one orientation event, I accidentally forgot to put the names of people’s employers on their nametags.
One week later, “Mary,” asked to meet, and told me she didn't have time to participate in the fellowship. Usually, "not having time" is a euphemism for something else, so I probed. She then admitted she felt she was "further along” in understanding community issues than others in the program.
She described two other fellows as “privileged, born with a silver spoon, and tech workers."
I pointed out that neither worked in tech. In fact, both had working-class jobs in other industries.
I asked her to think about what judgments others may make about her based on just brief conversations. She didn’t answer.
I then asked, "Can you learn from the others in this program?"
She paused and then said she may be able to learn but it would take her a long time. She felt it wasn’t worth it.
Humans regularly make assumptions about who is worthy to learn from and what is worth learning. When we’re bored, we might blame others for being boring. When we’re not hearing what we want or expect, we might assert someone’s hiding something from us. What we haven’t asked is: Why aren’t I learning?
This question may force us to recognize assumptions about what’s required to learn.
Here’s my observations on how we can be more responsible for our own learning.
Reflect on who we’re willing to learn from
Ask Yourself: Who are you willing to learn from? Who are you not willing to learn from?
After finishing my PhD, I was often frustrated by what I interpreted as rambling in community member discussions. As a result, I would interrupt others to ask them to get to the point. Some friends told me this was considered disrespectful. I realized I made assumptions about who could provide valuable insights and what I expected to hear others say. From then on, I decided to build relationships and get more curious about who I was volunteering with.
In contrast, Mary wasn’t willing to stick around because she believed others weren’t worth learning from. Whenever a fellow started to seem disengaged, I would ask, “can you learn from the others in the program?” If they said no, we both agreed they should resign. From experience, I knew it would take too much effort to get them to believe they could learn from others while potentially negatively impacting the morale of other fellows.
Interestingly enough, those earlier in their career were more likely to have a fixed idea of who they could learn from and what they should expect to learn. Some of the most curious fellows have been those in senior leadership positions or who have been working for many years. They saw the fellowship as an opportunity to interact with those with different perspectives.
Some people only want to lecture and not listen, and it’s understandable why you might not want to learn from them when the relationship is not reciprocal. What about those who are interested in engaging with you and you’ve decided they are not worth your time? Why? What might you be assuming about them? And what are those assumptions based on?
Selective versus open listening
Ask Yourself: Do you consider yourself a good listener? Have you ever found yourself listening to someone with the purpose of trying to validate what you already know?
I am a mediocre listener, I'm aware of that. I am constantly practicing.
In the first stage of the fellowship, we pushed fellows to strengthen their listening skills by interviewing community members. They had to bring an open-mind to these conversations. Because they weren’t allowed to start brainstorming for project ideas until the next stage, they weren’t listening for anything in particular. One fellow, a nonprofit executive, said he realized he has “long been good at fake listening” a realization that came to him because the program’s intentional ambiguity required open listening.
“Fake listening” means giving physical cues that you’re listening, like nodding, giving eye contact or repeating back what someone said. Except, you’re actually listening for information that is useful to you and that validates what you expect to hear. “Open listening” Is being open to what others have to say. Even if what they say conflicts with your beliefs.
Our assumptions can get in the way of open listening. Once, I was at a conference and I heard “Pam” criticize the premise of the conference in front of everyone. I was one of the conference organizers and concluded I’d already heard her complaints within her first two sentences.
Without realizing it, I’d stopped listening to Pam. I remember that she looked uncomfortable about what she was sharing. Four days later, during the debrief of the conference, other people mentioned something Pam had said. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was to have people who were listening. It reminded me that I probably don't listen as openly as I think I do. Realizing I hadn’t been listening made me reevaluate why, and then I traced it back to my assumptions of what Pam was going to say.
Think about assumptions you’ve held that have prevented you from openly listening.
Assuming what others will and won’t share
Ask Yourself: Have you ever refrained from asking a question because you assume you already know what the person would say? Or you assumed the person didn't want to tell you?
Sometimes when people don’t get the information they expect to hear, they blame the informant for withholding. Or they assume they know what the person will say, so they don’t bother asking. I constantly encouraged the fellows, especially during the community interviews, to reflect on the questions they didn’t ask their interviewees.
In one community interview, a small business owner in an emerging industry described how heavy government regulation facing her industry negatively impacted her ability to do business. The fellows who interviewed her recounted the conversation to their teammates and mocked her complaints. They pointed out how this business owner wasn’t considering how some groups of people were perhaps being “exploited” in this industry. I asked, “did you ask her about your concerns?” They said no. I asked them how they could expect the business owner to address a concern they hadn’t actually brought up.
In another interview, a self-described Democrat intentionally chose to meet with a Republican to learn. He said, “I thought I would disagree with 100% of the things the Republican said but I only disagree with about 65% of the things that he said." Through a discussion with his team, he realized he’d made assumptions about the values that Republicans hold, though he had never asked for clarification during the interview.
Aside from the fellowship, I also hold workshops on exploring assumptions. In one race-related assumptions workshop, one woman of color said, “I put people in boxes and though I’m often right, I realized I don’t like it. I don’t ask questions. I’m closing people off.”
We frequently assume answers to questions that don't get asked. Sometimes we don’t ask because we assume the question will make someone uncomfortable. When people don't explicitly tell us what we expect to hear and there are blanks in the narrative, we may fill in the blanks with our own answers.
Ask yourself: How willing are you to reevaluate your assumptions so that you can be open to change?
I serve as a curiosity coach in many of these conversations to help people understand when they’re making assumptions. I also have to coach myself. Whenever I’m bored by a conversation, I remind myself to lean in and get curious.
Being curious can be energy-consuming and even exhausting. For Mary, she could have learned from others, but she thought it would have taken too long, and she wanted to put her energy elsewhere.
I don’t wish that Mary made a different decision. She decided what was best for her. By opting out, she made room for someone else to join the fellowship to learn. I wanted her to become aware of her own assumptions. Once she was aware, she made an informed decision.
If we unpack the assumptions we’ve made about who we can learn from and what we should be learning, we can better articulate our own priorities and recognize our own biases. Many people don’t pause to recognize the assumptions behind our choices.
Doing so may lead to change within ourselves. We get to decide how open we are to that change.