Let Yourself Be Surprised

When my best friend and I met over 25 years ago we actively disliked each other for over a month before an all-night talk changed our minds and led to a life time of love and support. You’d think such an experience would be enough to keep me from ever making a presumption or assumption about someone again, except that this is impossible. 

One of the things I most appreciate about the multi-day courses I get to facilitate is how thoroughly they reinforce the rewards of this same lesson. The more time we spend together, the more we get to surprise each other.  To bust up all the assumptions made from the moment we walk in the door. 

We are wired to measure for social safety and make quick decisions about people, friend or foe. Our brains are overloaded with the 10,000-ish decisions we need to make a day, so we must have some cognitive short cuts for decision making. There is no shortage of brain science and models to explain how we take in information, create a story about it and then make a decision, all within seconds. Our survival as a species is connected to this ability and it enables us to make better use of our big, complex brains. But our need and ability to draw rapid conclusions means we have to be deliberate in our efforts to stay open to others, withhold our judgements and allow ourselves to be surprised.  We have to make a conscious effort simply to stay open to more information.

No doubt we have all been way off base about our initial impressions of something or someone multiple times. Yet this experience doesn’t prevent us from generating that quick, initial opinion next time. We know how important the first impression we make is precisely because it’s so hard to overcome.  To let someone or something work on us slowly, requires diligence and practice.

The adult learning environment is especially rife with opportunity to practice restraints in judgement. When adults take time to learn, it’s time they take away from everything else they could prioritize; work, career strategy, their kids, the to-do list at home. There is also their own financial investment or that of their company. So people want to be assured that this learning endeavor is worth their time and money. At the same time they are there to learn something. Adult learning means admitting there are things we don’t already know, could know more about or have been wrong about. This is hard for some, and doesn’t always bring out the best in us. Adult learning environments are filled with people trying in their various ways to get assurance of time well spent while also navigating the variety of learning styles, comfort levels, and degrees of openness surrounding them. As people work through all this, they are measuring themselves and each other like crazy.

It’s the job of a facilitator to efficiently create a safe space where people are ready to stretch their own ways of thinking and accept the variety of ideas and learning styles in the room. It happens in a day, often within an hour. But the great gift of a multi-day course is how thoroughly assumptions and ideas about each other get shattered. As people sink into learning mode they become more vulnerable, more generous and thoughtful. We absorb information at different rates; there are those with little to say day one, making brilliant remarks by day three. There are those initially seeming inclined towards negativity who turn out to be thoughtful critical thinkers. Apparent ambivalence is revealed to be profound, quiet processing. As time goes by, I watch people’s assumptions about each other melt away. I watch their surprised faces when colleagues offer unexpected insights or unique perspectives.

We can only surprise and delight each other if we stay open to the possibility of it. The work of  overcoming our deep social need to quickly assess each other is work worth doing. This means practicing sitting with the uncomfortable place where there is still much to learn. It means allowing others to reveal themselves to us slowly, while they navigate all their own initial discomfort. It means working to feel safe in the place where we haven’t yet formed conclusions, it means resting in uncertainty. In that uncertainty, there is possibility. The possibility of a new perspective, a new window into your own thinking, a new connection– maybe even an unexpected life-long friend.

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