I will admit that I may be not the sharpest tool in the shed. Yet, what I lack in intelligence, I make up for with common sense and good looks. But my stunning appearance is not the point of this blog. Instead, I’d like to discuss how my occasional thickheadedness can interfere with simple communication.
Over the course of my lifetime, there have been times when both my knowledge and experience have failed to help me understand someone else’s perspective. I suspect this happens to most of us and could be part of the reason we have so much conflict in our world.
After a confusing undergraduate experience as a pre-med student with a psychology major and a drama minor (“Paging Dr. Hollywood”), I pursed a master’s degree in social work thinking I’d like to work as a counselor in a mental health facility. One of the requirements for this degree was to complete a year-long group therapy class. A creative technique our professor used was to have some of the students participate in a simulated therapy group while the remaining students observed from another room—through a two-way mirror. By the way, did you know that two-way mirrors are also called one-way mirrors? It’s no wonder that we have trouble communicating. But I digress.
During the second semester of our group therapy class, the professor gave each of us a role to play in this simulated group. Each role identified common participant challenges such as anxiety, marital problems, or substance abuse. We were expected to demonstrate those challenges as we participated in the group.
Over the course of the semester, the discussions led to lots of laughter, a few disagreements, and occasionally, tears. The experience uncovered a variety of emotions and we learned a lot about group dynamics and human behavior. Within a few weeks, however, I noticed that almost everyone in the group had abandoned their roles and seemed to be participating more or less as themselves. I found this odd. This wasn’t what we were instructed to do. So, being the good student I was, I stuck to my adopted persona using every technique I had learned in my undergraduate drama classes. I had my heart set on winning an Oscar, or perhaps a Freud.
Anyway, towards the end of the semester, when we debriefed the group process with the professor, I brought up the observation that everyone else seemed to be participating in the group as themselves rather than the characters they had been given. Several members of the group said, “Well, so were you.”
I adamantly denied this misguided accusation, yet my classmates firmly asserted that it was clear to them that I was being myself. I was perplexed by this and we debated for a while until the professor redirected us to another topic. At that point, I saw a couple of my fellow students smile at each other as if they were amused by my inability to understand what they were saying. It frustrated me and I did consider leaving the class early to let the air out of the tires on their cars. But I chose to let it go and a few weeks later, I got my social work degree.
About six years after I graduated, I was sitting in my office at Hospice of Northern Virginia where I was the Manager of Counseling Services. In this job, I supervised two dozen social workers, chaplains, and bereavement counselors. On that day, out of no where, a realization hit me up side the head—figuratively, of course. I recalled being in my group therapy class and thought, “Oh, wait…now I get it!”
I finally understood what the other students in my class were trying to tell me. My need to stick to the rules by hanging onto the role I’d been given was my issue. I had slipped back into being the follow-the-rules person that I am, even though I thought I was playing a part. This might have worked in acting class but in group therapy class, it meant that I was not in touch with what was happening. The problem was that I just didn’t get it. The other members of the group were trying to explain it to me but I couldn’t see it.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever wondered why you can’t understand where someone else is coming from? If so, what should you do to avoid being like me and waiting six years to figure it out?
I think the first thing we need to do is to embrace a bit of humility and assume that we don’t have all the answers. By doing this, we open ourselves up to more possibilities and perspectives. If we can step back and ask, “What does that mean?” or “What am I missing?”, I think we avoid being locked into the arrogance of our own limited knowledge.
The next step is to admit that we have biases and blinders that might be barriers to understanding. We have ingrained perspectives that are not easily changed. However, when we admit this and then become aware of our biases, we can start the process of seeing different viewpoints.
Sometimes, it takes life experience to understand concepts that we weren’t able to see when we were younger. Other times, it takes our own effort to move beyond our self-limiting behavior to understand and connect with others. In a way, I was proud of myself for finally understanding what I had missed in graduate school. However, if I had just been more open to what the others were saying, I might not have waited six years to say, “Oh…now I get it.”