Asking from Altered Assumptions

Asking from Altered Assumptions

December 18th

One of the main themes of this year so far has been testing assumptions. Next year I aim to operate out of a different core assumption. This blog is about how it will change (and has already changed) my life.

Testing assumptions requires first paying conscious attention to them as often as possible. One assumption I noticed I operated under was “that people are ultimately looking after number 1”. Although it may be true in specific situations, on thinking it over, I decided it is not true overall.

Next year I choose to operate under the assumption “that to help others is one of people’s greatest intrinsic rewards”. That is to say that people really want to help and to serve others. I am aware that some act more often with this guiding principle than others. I am also aware that some may be more selective in the population towards whom they extend this beneficence. However, operating with this assumption first, I notice some striking and very important differences in my experience of the world.

First I must digress slightly. About seven years ago, one of my uncles said something to me that has stuck: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. It obviously makes sense on all sorts of different levels, but for some very complex and long-established reasons, New Zealand culture (and to some extent, many other world cultures) discourage asking for help. There are specific situations in which co-operation is actively encouraged, but also many that carry with them the unspoken law that you must suffer alone. Our culture frowns upon people who can’t/won’t “stand on their own two feet”.

This belief has a very strong effect on the way we communicate and behave toward one another. It tends to make a request for another’s assistance a burdensome thing both in our own mind and theirs. They believe that “I work hard to manage on my own, so why can’t you?” It then follows that if they then do assist, they may resent it or feel you are in their debt. It becomes an emotionally loaded currency.

On the other hand, I feel I am burdening them with my needs. I may feel weak or unaccomplished for not being able to do it all alone. Ultimately, it makes me less likely to ask for help, more likely to take on too much and it contributes to the modern phenomenon of disconnected communities.

I saw a really interesting TED Talk a few years ago which addressed this aversion to asking for help. It might have actually been before my uncle’s sage advice. I’ve seen many TED Talks over the years, but this is one that stuck with me. The presenter talks about the difference in how she felt about the world and people by asking for help and in turn, receiving it. She also talks about the social stigma of asking for help. She then gives specific examples of how that willingness to be vulnerable allowed her to feel gratitude and to achieve so much more than she could have alone.  You can find it here.

More recently, I came across Marshall Rosenberg’s (audio) book, “Non-Violent Communication”. In it, he approaches the topic from a more scientific psychological standpoint. He talks about how if we embrace this basic social need that we humans all have, our approach to the request can come across with a different energy. When we recognise another’s need to contribute to others’ well-being and come to really believe that we are offering an opportunity to fulfil that need by asking, it becomes a gift. When our requests come from a place of giving rather than an attitude of taking, it can be received in a different way too. Not only will the person be more likely to help, but the latent feeling towards the one who asked can become one of gratitude rather than one of indebtedness or resentment.

Another thing he makes a strong point of is that the implied consequences make a world of difference to the tone of the request too. That is to say that if you have already taken responsibility for the idea that the task is yours and yours alone, you will not feel let down if it remains yours. If however, someone agrees to help, that is a bonus. In the first case, you harbour no resentment. In the second, you have nothing but gratitude. With gratitude and positivity on both sides of the equation, we set that discourse up to be really positive thing to our relationship with that person. It becomes a relationship builder rather than a hindrance to it.

If we instead have an implication of requirement behind the request (i.e. we feel it is not really our task to do in the first place), there is likely to be a tone of disappointment or judgement should they choose not to help. In this case, the implication feels compelled to help and may resent having done so. If they refuse, they feel (perhaps unfairly) that they have let you down. In either case, we set it up to have a net negative effect on our relationship overall.

With these ideas in mind, we see what an important tool it can be in building great relationships. On a somewhat unrelated note, it can be an excellent way to meet new people and makes a great opener when trying to pick someone up ;0) Worth paying a little attention to in my books.

I’m still not great at it, I’ll admit. All too often, I often catch myself slipping into the behaviours of “looking after number one” and taking rather than looking for the opportunity to give. But as with all things, improvement come from first giving attention to the practice.

That said, even the practice of focussing on the concept has helped change my world view. It’s been a large part of the healing I have undergone this year. It has also meant that I have been able to find a different way to approach the problem of resources for The Longest Walk NZ.  In theory, I approach new people with the idea of “How can I help this person? How can I make their life a little better, if only for a moment?” This sets the tone for a pleasant conversation, at worst. At best, it lays the foundation for a mutually rewarding interaction and/or relationship.

Ghandi is oft-quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world”. For me, this assumption allows me to be the change I want to see: to live in a world where people act for something bigger than themselves… whatever that may be. If we can succeed in this internal shift of “default attitude”, imagine what sort of world this world could become.


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