Exploring our assumptions about others

23 Mar

An exercise exploring our assumptions about others, that I have used on training courses for Mediators is called ‘Does he take sugar?’.

One of the benefits of the exercise is that it promotes self awareness with regard to how we see others, and how this can affect our impartiality.

The exercise involves the following:

Participants pair up and are asked to give an answer to a question about each other.

For example, they will be asked “does your partner take sugar in their tea/ coffee?” They will both then give an answer without discussing whether the answer is correct or not.

They then split up and find another partner and this time they may be asked a question such as “Which newspaper does this person read?”.

This is repeated for a few more questions such as “What kind of music does this person like?”, “What sport does this person play?”, “What is their favourite film?”, “Which political party do they support?” etc.

At no time are the answers discussed when they are in pairs.

We then discuss as a group what came up for people in the exercise. Mostly people find it funny and a bit awkward making such snap decisions about people and then saying them out loud. Occasionally people feel quite upset by the answers given about them, but usually their experience is one of amused interest.

This is quite significant because actually most of us are constantly answering similar questions in our own heads all the time when we meet people and are coming up with our own answers without checking with the people we meet whether our assumptions are correct or not.

And as with the exercise it is fairly unpredictable which assumptions, if known, would upset the person we are making them about, and which ones would not. It is a very personal reaction.

(To anyone who considers that it is entirely predictable which assumptions will upset people, I would ask you to consider whether you are speaking for yourself or claiming to speak for others.)

‘Political Correctness’

It is not possible to establish what stereotyping statements will upset people, as something that upsets one person will not necessarily upset another. This is why the ‘Political Correctness’ movement was seen by many to be very patronising and self-righteous as you can’t make generalisations about what is offensive and what is not – it can be a very personal thing.

It is also why many people were upset when (often white) people criticised the use of nursery rhymes such as ‘Baa Baa Black sheep’ as being offensive to black people. (Incidentally, I was walking through my local supermarket the other day and 3 little black girls were happily walking down the aisles singing this, while the smiling mother of one of them walked along behind. How beautiful a sight to see, and how ironic, given the furore that was once made about this song.)

Also, more recently the banning of Christmas messages in some organisations’ cards….. at Christmas!… because they ‘would be offensive to non-Christians’. And yet many Muslim organisations came out to say this was not at all offensive to them.

The Rescuing practice here is of assuming we know what will or will not offend particular groups, by speaking for them, without checking with them if it is actually the case that an action or phrase is offensive to them.

Instead of increasing mutual understanding it often leads to resentment of those being ‘protected’ (Rescued) as it feels like previous liberties are being taken away without any understanding of why.

We all make assumptions

We are all constantly making assumptions about people and often we will not consider which ones are accurate and which are not.

What this inevitably means is that sometimes we will make assumptions about people, and if they become known to them, through our words or our actions, there is a chance they will be upset.

It is at this point that we can choose to ‘justify’ and defend our assumption, or belittle their reaction – actions which are more likely to happen if we are confronted aggressively for making it.

Or we can accept that our assumption is not accurate and learn to revise it – which is more likely to happen if we and the person ‘assumed about’ are willing to understand that assumptions are made all the time and we sometimes make mistakes and get them wrong.

It is then an opportunity for learning and greater closeness and connection between the people involved.

Often however, it leads to a great distancing and separation – particularly with regard to assumptions based on race and gender, and more particularly assumptions about Black and Asian people and about women. I am puzzled by the basis for these areas being more aggressively challenged than many other assumptions.

If there is an argument that historically there has been a greater impact from these, then I would want to point out that to respond aggressively is the least effective way of challenging it.

Instead of it leading to learning and connection, it leads to denial and defensiveness and ‘hidden’ expressions of the assumptions so that the negative impact continues. A more open challenging of any assumption (rather than a labelling of the person) on the understanding that we all continuously, even unconsciously, do it, is more likely to be effective in challenging the stereotype.

I mean, the condemnation approach hasn’t been that effective so far has it? That is because it is another means of conflict suppression, which, in turn, is conflict avoidance. That old boiling pot with the lid on.

I relate these aspects of our behaviour to impartiality as it is only when we recognise these inclinations towards bias and are willing to acknowledge them in ourselves, that we are able to maintain impartiality when we are communicating with people or supporting them in resolving their destructive conflict.

And even, more challengingly, it allows us to be aware of our biases when we are in a destructive conflict, which allows us to take a greater level of ownership of our own actions, thoughts and feelings in connection with it.

Impartiality plays a crucial role in all of the skills used to practice effective communication – to see how, go to: Listening, Summarising and Questionin – and also underpins all effective conflict resolution.


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