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Build Trust: Get vulnerable and share your assumptions with others
Part 5 in "Explore Assumptions" series
I arranged to meet “James,” an acquaintance I had known for years, at my office for a noontime walk. When James arrived, I asked if he would wait a moment while I quickly ate some homemade food I just defrosted. James said that he was hungry too and suggested we go to lunch. I offered to share my food. He said he was a vegetarian. I said the meal was just tofu and green beans. I microwaved the food, plated it, and handed it to him. After we sat down, I realized the dish included beef.
So I told him, “Oh, there’s some beef. Just push it aside."
He did and we continued the conversation.
Later on that day, I realized that if James were white, I would have apologized profusely and assumed he wouldn’t eat food that touched meat. I started to ask myself why I treated James differently. In my mind, white people were much more rigid about adhering to their food preferences. Recognizing one assumption unraveled a whole series of assumptions: people of color eat meat; those who are vegetarians grew up eating meat and became vegetarians as adults, hence they would be okay with meat touching their food.
I assumed James grew up eating meat because he is African American. I also assumed he became a vegetarian as an adult, and that he wouldn't have the same aversion to food touching meat as the white people would. I had constructed a whole narrative on his dietary preferences based on his race.
Instead of denying I made many assumptions, I decided to further explore what was true or not, which I’ll share soon. Here’s what I learned when we acknowledge and talk about the wrong assumptions we’ve made.
Take risks in sharing your assumptions
Ask yourself: Have you ever owned up to an assumption you made about someone, to that person? What happened?
To have a conversation about assumptions, you sometimes need to model vulnerability and authenticity first. There is risk in sharing because we don’t know what people’s reactions will be. Taking that risk is critical to deepening relationships.
Back to the story with James. The next time we met, I decided to take a risk by revealing my assumption.
“I realized I asked you to push aside the beef because I assumed you’d be okay with that, and that if you were white, you wouldn’t have been okay with that. I assumed as a person of color, you grew up eating meat and later decided not to,” I told James.
“I made an assumption too,” James said. “I assume that people don't like to have their food rejected, especially Asians.”
We both laughed.
“You mean, you normally wouldn’t eat food that has touched meat?” I asked.
James said no, but admitted that he ate chicken with his host family when he lived in Indonesia because he didn't want to offend them. I would learn later that James did indeed grow up eating meat and became a vegetarian as an adult. In fact, his grandmother used to pick pork out of his food prior to his arrival until she advanced in age. He only realized this after arriving at her house and realizing she forgot to pick it out. I realized my assumption was based on my early experiences meeting vegetarians for the first time, in college. Most of them were white.
We both took a risk. We both learned.
Behind every assumption is a whole system of logic that upholds our truths. We might not even be aware of that logic, until we start to peel back its layers. Assumptions are like Russian dolls. Examining our assumptions can help us understand why we do what we do.
I had never reflected on how I associate certain foods and dietary practices with certain groups of people.
It can be easier to make assumptions than invite a conversation, especially if we are unsure how the person will react. People have told me about risks they took with relationships that they never really recovered from. In most cases where I’ve seen people take risks with one another, it’s led to deeper relationships. In a few cases, it’s led to the end of a relationship, which probably indicates it wasn’t that strong to begin with.
When we don't share our assumptions, we are left with the answers we imagined instead of inviting other people’s opinions and the truth.
Invite others to interpret your assumptions
Ask Yourself: Have you ever invited a discussion around an assumption you made? What happened?
To increase the opportunity to learn from your assumptions, share them with others and ask them to share their interpretations. I shared my story about James with others. I heard:
“Why did you assume that he would want to eat your food anyway? Why were you so casual? Why couldn't you have asked a question rather than say, “Push the meat aside!”?
“I assume vegetarian people of color do so for religious reasons and they’ve been vegetarian all their life.”
“Your assumption is based on the fact that you’re a Vietnamese Catholic. If you were a Vietnamese Buddhist, it would've been different," said a friend who was a Vietnamese Buddhist. Many Buddhists are vegetarian.
Sharing my original assumption invited other perspectives. It helped me reflect on other assumptions I had been unconsciously making. I realized that I was more casual when I spoke to other people of color, more deferential about white people’s food choices, and that the people of color I grew up with were Catholic, Christian, or Hindus who ate meat.
When my Vietnamese Buddhist friend made her point, I realized most of my Vietnamese family friends growing up were Catholic. It wasn’t until college that I learned that most Indians are vegetarians because my Indian friends in high school ate meat. These interpretations made me notice what I assumed to be normal. It made me reevaluate what I always held to be true.
I repeatedly saw the power of collectively exploring assumptions. I created and ran a cross-sector fellowship for three years. I guided the fellows through discussions on their personal assumptions. They expanded their understanding of themselves and the world by hearing from those with different perspectives.
Ask questions to surface others’ assumptions
Ask Yourself: What do you do when you witness someone else making an assumption?
We’ve all witnessed others making assumptions. If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to make things awkward. You likely didn’t know how to approach it. Often, the best approach if you don’t know how to bring up something sensitive is to point it out and ask a question, even if it’s uncomfortable.
The teams of fellows I mentioned earlier met weekly for six months. As a facilitator, I often asked people to go around and talk about their “highs” and “lows” from the previous week.
One team met right after President Trump announced he’d detain children of undocumented immigrants at the Mexican-American border.
“Your side of the aisle must be happy this week,” said “Chris” to “Samuel,” a Republican.
Others in the group shared their highs and lows. Then I said, "Someone just made a comment to Samuel about his side of the aisle being happy this week."
Chris said, “That was me, I said that. I just thought Republicans would be happy about everything that's happening."
Samuel said, "No, I'm not happy."
I asked, “How did that comment make you feel, Samuel?"
He said, "It's expected. I get those kinds of comments all the time."
Samuel then went on to explain what it feels like to be a Republican in a progressive state, including seeing “No Republicans allowed” posted signs on cafes.
"I didn't know," said Chris. "I'm sorry. I don’t know many Republicans.”
I told the group: “When we hear assumptions and statements, we can ask questions. Let's create a space where it is safe to ask questions.” Everyone learned more about Samuel’s perspective and how to invite people into a conversation to explore their assumptions.
Ask yourself: What wrong assumption have you made that you’re willing to share with others so you can hear different interpretations?
For James and I, the risks we took with each other transformed our relationship. We went from being good acquaintances to great friends who could rely on each other for candid guidance.
Through the fellowship, I watched time and again how asking people to explore assumptions together, provided opportunities to take the risks necessary to quickly build authentic relationships. Some never risked sharing; many did.
Chances are, when you have assumptions about someone, they most likely have assumptions about you. When you share your assumptions with one another, you both get vulnerable. Each side recognizes the risk the other is taking because they are taking the risk themselves. This is how trust builds. This is how we learn about other people's stories.