I suspect that like many of you, I have a few key quotes that have stuck with me over time and provide me with guidance, encouragement and reorientation. Many of these quotes are posted on the wall or bulletin board beside my desk, and over my next several blog posts, I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour of my bulletin board!
First up is one of the newest additions: “If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true” by Margaret Wheatley.
I had come across this quote somewhere, liked it, scribbled it on a sticky note and put it up on the wall and then forgot about it. Until one day…
A colleague and I had been engaged in a multi-year “conversation” that had at times been very intense and resulted in disappointment, frustration and anger. But it was one of those situations that didn’t seem to ever be resolved. From my perspective, I would think it was over or that we had made progress, but then a new circumstance would arise, and we would be back in the middle of it again. It was not that either of us was wanting to “shove it under the rug” or didn’t care about resolution. I am confident that we both care deeply about the issue and each other while yearning for resolution and reconciliation. But we just didn’t seem able to get it figured out in a way that was satisfying for both of us.
This spring, we had another go around and in preparation for the meeting, I spent some time thinking and journaling about the situation, trying to figure out why the issue wasn’t resolved. Mostly this was a way for me to get things straight in my mind, but when we met, I was able to more clearly articulate my understanding of the issue. And this is where Wheatly’s quote comes in.
After I explained my retrospective perspective on the issue, my colleague was quiet for a few moments, spoke some harsh words and then closed the zoom meeting. After I sat in shock for a bit, the Wheatley quote came to mind: “If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true.”
It now made sense why over the years I would think we were making progress and then suddenly be right back in the midst of the issue again. What I said in that last conversation obviously surprised my colleague because they thought something else was true. Without realizing it, we were both beginning from foundationally different starting points. Subsequently we both based our resulting responses and actions on “our true,” and we ended up on two very different trains (of thought) while I think we both assumed we were actually on the same track.
I wish I could tell you that my colleague and I have come to a common understanding of the truth, or at least an understanding and respect for the other perspective, but that’s not (yet) the case. I hope that at some point we will be able to re-engage in the conversation when emotions are less heated.
But in the meantime, my firsthand immersion in Wheatley’s quote sticks with me. I find it useful to be aware of my own response when I recognize being surprised by what someone else says or does. It is helpful to me in those situations to get a little self-reflective, figuring out what I was assuming to be true. This takes some intentional work as I find that often “my true” is not something that I have overtly articulated but instead it is often an assumed and unconscious perspective. And at the same time, using my surprise or the other person’s surprise is also an opportunity to be open to understanding their perspective as well.
Through this experience, I have learned to pay more attention to my own responses and those of others and having “surprise” be a trigger for a dive into (often) unexamined assumptions.