Challenging Our Assumptions

Wednesday 19 December, 2012

A week ago I was challenged to leave my comfort zone. I saw it coming and my immediate response was to resist. Fortunately my motivation to take up the challenge was greater. It was all part of a coaching course I was attending and during this particular session I had been talking with one of the coaches about my reluctance to make the first move in social interactions. At best I feel awkward; at worst, anxious and ready to leave. The coach knew my travel arrangements for that evening and our closing dialogue went something like this:

“You’re travelling home on the train tonight…?
“Don’t. Don’t make me do this.”
“How about starting a conversation with some people on the train?
“Some?!”

Eventually and without too much fuss I committed to having a brief conversational exchange with two people during my 20-minute train journey. I’m not brave enough to try this without any encouragement, but I knew that with the coach’s support – not to mention the support of all the other members of the group – I would be likely to follow through on the agreement. Making a commitment to someone in this way is a powerful and motivating statement of intent.

Only days prior to this I had been reading Oliver Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, in which he explains how he had deliberately drawn attention to himself on the London Underground in order to experience the difference between what we think will happen and what actually happens. It was an exercise in Stoicism designed to prove how unduly affected we are by our beliefs and assumptions. Things are never as bad as we are capable of imagining.

In my case, I feel uncomfortable making the move to introduce myself at social gatherings. I worry I will appear incompetent or that any lack of interest in the ensuing conversation will be obvious. And I worry about how to keep the conversation going. I often go blank and have no idea what to say or what questions to ask. When someone else asks a simple question I think to myself, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

So as I left the workshop and walked to the train station I wondered what on earth I was going to say. How would I introduce myself to tired (assumption) commuters who just want to get home and put their feet up for the rest of the evening (assumption), without being bothered by a stranger who is experimenting with his comfort zone and who, in doing so, is also messing with theirs? (assumption)

I spent the time trying to come up with an initial question which might lead to some sort of a conversation. As I got more and more desperate I offered myself the chance to back out. There will be other train journeys. But that was not a reasonable option. Especially considering I would be seeing the group again the next day. And then I came up with a question I knew would engage people. All of a sudden I had a plan. And with it came a more purposeful stride which seemed to quicken as I neared the train station. I would simply ask of them: “What’s the best thing that has happened to you today?

I spoke to four people. I approached two on the platform and two more on the train. The first two were modest interactions, but nonetheless engaging. On the train – with more time and captive passengers – I chatted freely with two unrelated strangers for the entire journey home. It was a wholly satisfying experience, but perhaps most gratifying of all were people’s answers to my question:

  1. Waking up this morning and remembering I had a wonderful night last night. I was in some beautiful places.
  2. I just had a great workshop! On typography. I’m a web designer.
  3. The trains were running on time today, because yesterday I had an hour’s delay.
  4. My teacher put forward my prototype for the next design phase. I’m an industrial engineering student and I’ve been working on it for six months.

All four people answered quickly and decisively. The design student added that it was nice to be able to focus on the positives of the day. She asked me what my best experience of today had been. I replied that it was this very exercise. It had been invigoratingly successful. Prior to its execution, I could not have imagined it would go so well, with such enthusiastic and uplifting answers, and such heartwarming connections.

It just goes to show that when we put our beliefs about situations to the test, we discover a little more of the truth about ourselves and our assumptions. I will undoubtedly find myself feeling anxious again among a group of strangers, but when I do I will be able to reflect on this story and smile to myself. And then, if I want to, I can ask the person next to me, ‘What’s the best thing that has happened to you today?’

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