Dr. Marilyn Englander is no newcomer to assumptions and how they can lead to anger. In her 2018 book, Parents, Listen Up: Leading Teenagers to Grit, Resilience and a Love of Learning, she tells of many interactions with parents and teens in which there would be no way that she could take at face value what they would tell her. By listening with heart and head to students and parents caught up in difficult situations, she has found ways to help them to listen and respond more realistically to the situations. That is a challenge facing each of us in our daily encounters.
The following Perspective aired recently on radio station KQED-FM, an NPR affiliate in Northern California. It was presented by Marilyn Englander, an educator and author who teaches and lives north of San Francisco. With the author’s permission, we quote it in its entirety as it so clearly demonstrates the importance of clarifying assumptions before acting on them.
"We all experience small, everyday incidents that make someone, often ourselves, disproportionately angry. Marilyn Englander tries to practice being curious first, instead of furious.
"I am idling at the wheel behind a couple cars at a stop sign. A few seconds tick by, then the driver just in front of me explodes with a furious bleat of honks. He’s jerking back and forth in agitation. Well, yes, why isn’t that car up at the front moving? I lift my hand to add my horn to the protest when I glimpse an elderly woman painfully creeping to the end of the crosswalk. Cars move forward. My face flushes in shame.
"In mere seconds I’ve generated a great deal of anger…yet the incident was so insignificant. How often this happens.
"I see a woman drop a bag of dog waste on the shore trail and I call after her in barely disguised irritation --- “Uh, excuse me, but you left that bag!” She turns and patiently explains, “I use bright red bags so I always can find them when I come back this way after doing my two miles. Who can carry it that far in this heat!”
"'Be curious, not furious,' I chant to myself, but it’s a challenging discipline. I have to mentally transport myself to the other side of a chasm of strong emotion and look back from the other person’s viewpoint. But if I can allow curiosity to nudge aside my anger, suddenly a new perspective opens. I can take a few beats, breathe, pose a few questions.
"To make it a first impulse to inquire, to be generous enough to ask why takes a lot of practice. But saying, 'Tell me what’s happening here' or 'Please explain' opens the door to empathy.
"Reaching out to investigate, willfully suspending anger, requires self-awareness as I hurry through my busy day. But it can help me connect to others instead of seeing them as obstacles. And it certainly lowers blood pressure and lightens my mood.
"I’ll keep trying."
MARILYN ENGLANDER, Educator & Author
Marilyn Englander brings out the importance of keeping our mind focused on the facts in a situation, rather than rushing to unwarranted assumptions that can lead to anger. In the first situation she shares, it’s clear that a driver making inappropriate assumptions based on virtually no facts could have caused angry reactions that might have led to life-threatening actions. Fortunately, in this instance, it didn’t. We need to practice catching our mind rushing to judgment in the moment in similar situations. Building our self-awareness in this manner enables us to observe our thoughts and angry feelings without necessarily acting on them, and imagine other dimensions to a situation than our first assessment.
The Ladder of Assumptions below (found in our book, Conflict - The Unexpected Gift), is a simple tool that helps us be accountable for our thinking when we've vered toward furious and want to return to curious.