Challenging assumptions

blank-business-card-697059I recently wrote a short piece on how one, short sentence had a profound negative impact on my studies at school. Now for something completely different.

At a Conference for Careers Advisers, of which I was one, in the mid-1990’s, there was a workshop on about how to provide the best possible advice and support to young people facing the most challenging of circumstances. An opportunity to talk about our experiences.

Eager to share our opinions, there was a flurry of “solutions” offered to the case studies set before us. We were on a roll, coming up with solutions to the circumstances described: disability, lack of confidence & motivation, poor family support, low academic attainment, limited employability skills. Answers flowed from us with confidence, until one of the participants made a statement that genuinely stopped us all in our tracks, and brought silence to a room with around seventy people in it.

“Challenge our assumptions.”

The next thirty minutes had a lasting affect on me.

The case studies were ignored as we each took in the importance, insight and profoundness that had been triggered. We realised that we were at risk of pre-judging, to some extent, the very people we were tasked with helping. Looking at their circumstances and responding to those, rather than considering the bigger picture.

I blamed this on complacency.

I was offering careers advice to around three hundred people a year. I reckon that after doing the job for seven or eight years, at that stage, I had got into an over-confident rut. In my subconscious, maybe I was working through the following process: “Here’s someone with similar circumstances to those presented by other people in the past, therefore here is the course of action that worked for them.” A huge assumption that may well have been correct, but there was a risk that it wasn’t.

It’s all too easy to allow your prejudices (we all have them), stereotypes, previous experiences, beliefs, messages picked up from the media and, most worryingly, social media mis-shape your opinion of people and how you interact with them.

These assumptions can range from unconscious bias, through stereotyping and up to hatred. The worst extremes lead to racism, sectarianism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and disability discrimination. But biases can effect your perception of any social group: age, gender identity, physical abilities, height, weight, hair colour, education, place of residence, football team supported, and many other characteristics are all sources of potential bias.

We all have these biases, or assumptions. Anyone who says they don’t is lying (or at least I assume they are!). They are developed as we grow up and experience life. We pick up messages from what we see and hear, either first hand or through the commentary of others.

We turn these into labels, and attach them to people.

If you challenge these beliefs, and see beyond them, you may realise that you have much more in common with each other than you have assumed. Find out about people as individuals, spend as much (or more) time listening as talking, and then make a decision about your future relationship with them.

This doesn’t mean you have to ignore or compromise your values: just view them through a different lens.

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.” Orville Wright

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