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The powerful practice of letting other people surprise you


Antoniodiaz - Shutterstock

Cecilia Pigg - published on 02/02/22

I resented my husband for being unhelpful ... until I noticed something about myself.

“He doesn’t do anything to help around the house!” I thought resentfully to myself, as I scurried around doing a thousand tasks that were, in my mind, not my responsibility. I had noticed it a few times, and from that moment on, I established in my head that my dear husband of two years was generally “not helpful.”

Then, whenever he did do something helpful around the house, instead of acknowledging it and realizing he does help out, I’d find some reason to think it was a fluke or didn’t count — because I was so convinced that my label of “not helpful” was the most true one, and the one that should stay.

My husband is actually quite helpful, but it turns out that not communicating my needs well — combined with my subconscious determination to see him as “not helpful” — resulted in many months of general grumpiness and resentment. I was not willing to see it differently.

I think this is an example of a fairly universal problem. We are used to seeing what we expect to see–especially when it comes to people we know and love. We are not willing to be suprised by the people around us, especially the people we know best.

But, what if we were? 

Here are two practical ways to open your eyes more to the people around you, and to stay away from unduly harsh judgments and assumptions that keep you close-minded and close-hearted. 

1. Suggest a second option to yourself after you make a first assumption about someone’s motives or actions.

Did that person cut you off and then zoom away because they’re a bad driver and incredibly inconsiderate? That might be your first thought as you take a deep breath and try not to curse at them. But think of another option. Maybe she’s taking someone to the hospital and needs to get there fast! My husband gently reminds me of that option while driving all the time. 

2. Ask more questions, and listen to the answers.

Even if you’re very sure you know why someone did what they did, ask them about it. Ask them why, and try to figure out what they were thinking and feeling. It takes a lot of humility and patience to ask questions you think you know the answers to already –especially if you feel hurt in the situation. But the more you probe, the more you may discover which will help you truly understand the situation. 

Here are some people you might not be willing to be surprised by … yet.

Your grumpy next door neighbor

If your only interactions with a certain neighbor have been passive-aggressive note passing, or grumpy confrontations about noise/lawn care/pet problems, then it is likely that neither of you sees the other in a great light. And there’s a good chance the first thing you think about when you see him or her is not something pleasant. Are you willing to see that there’s more to this person than perpetual grumpiness?

Your spouse and/or your best friend and/or your close relative (a sibling or parent)

When you know someone really well, share a history with them, and are actively working on maintaining a relationship, you might get a little too sure of yourself. It is easy to notice a pattern of disappointing behavior, and then resentfully always expect that disappointing behavior. Slowly over time, if we aren’t careful, we can then start to focus only on the defects of our love, to the exclusion of every positive quality they have or any positive action they take. 

Your kids (or other people’s kids)

I had a babysitting job for a year, and from day one, the oldest girl I watched showed me that she disliked me and didn’t trust me. It wasn’t an enjoyable year, as not much changed from day to day. I had a hard time seeing past her wall of disdain, and not focusing on how frustrated I was that she didn’t like me. If I had chosen to focus on her good qualities, could that have helped our relationship? I think it might have, and I wish I could go back in time.

Your coworkers

You have to be around them most of the day (or at least stay in touch with them most of the day if you work remotely). Is there more to them than you see at work? Certainly, there is. Don’t assume their ingrained work habits are present simply to annoy or inconvenience you. The more conversations you can gently have, the better. 

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