The moment I see you, I start making stuff up. Oh, I no doubt think my observations are expert opinion – after all, I know you, or I know people like you, or I know what I’d think or do in this situation.
And making you up can be useful – keeps me from having to start from scratch in every interaction. But coming to you with a full set of assumptions can get in the way of understanding, empathy, connection – or even just getting stuff done.
“So that seems a bit high.” I was remarking about the price of some meat I just ordered at the butcher. It was about twice what I had expected. The butcher blanched – it was the kind of mistake that could get them fired (at least, that’s what I told myself). I reassured him I was OK, he corrected the price, and I had a story about the power of privilege (a no-risk encounter for me, a possibly disastrous one for him). I have no idea what his experience was. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe he liked to overcharge clueless people who just as often didn’t notice, or maybe he had a sales quota.
The point is, I don’t really know – I’ve only got the story I made up about the interaction – one that makes sense to me. If I really want to know, I have to ask, and I probably need to have some connection (for them to feel safe telling me their experience, not just what they think I want to hear).
I am often surprised by what people tell me when I ask what they are thinking, the meaning they make from a given situation, or the emotions they are experiencing. I get it right often enough that I tell myself I am pretty clued in, but I get it wrong often enough to know that it is genuinely hard to know what is going on with someone else without a connection, without trust, without safety – and especially, without asking.
Try it out – pick a safe interaction (roughly equal power dynamics, nothing too earth-shattering at stake) and ask. “What are you thinking/feeling right now?” “What do you think just happened?” “What is important about that?” “Help me understand.” Avoid “Why” questions – they can seem accusatory.
You might be surprised by what you learn.