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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I Am Going - An Assumption Undermines Communication

Mo Willems writes children’s books that convey basic conflicts in life in beautifully presented, simple ways.  His themes of friendship, connection, and communication, told for children, reflect issues that adults face as well.

My grandson loves I am Going! because it’s the very first book he read himself cover to cover.  I love I am Going! because it deals with assumptions and how they bring confusion to communication.

Willems’ series about Elephant and Piggie focuses on Gerald, a neurotic elephant, and Piggie, a happy-go-lucky pig.  When Piggie announces to Gerald, “I am going!” Gerald is filled with anxiety.  

He assumes Piggie is abandoning him.  In desperation he pleads, “Go later!  Go tomorrow!  Go next week!  Go next month!  GO NEXT YEAR!”  But Piggie sticks to her original statement, “I am going now.”  

Gerald, who is reacting from his assumption about abandonment, stays in a state of panic until Piggie finally tells him that she is going to lunch.  He spent a tremendous amount of emotional energy when a simple question to clarify what Piggie meant would have saved that for him.  All he needed to ask was either “Why are you going?” or “Where are you going?”  Instead he assumed she was abandoning him and reacted accordingly.

In many couples that I work with in therapy, the issue of assumption often clouds communication.  Sometimes the reaction is an assumption which is the result of history.  He says, “I know what will happen if I try to connect more with her.  She’ll criticize me and tell me I’m doing it wrong.”  His assumption keeps him from taking the risk of connecting with his partner.  

Sometimes the assumption is like Gerald’s assumption, attributing a meaning when a clarifying question would save the day.  She says, “I’d rather go to Florida than to Michigan any day.”  He, a guy who came from Michigan, assumes she doesn’t like his state and maybe doesn’t want to do things he wants to do.  The resulting resentment he feels clouds his next statement to her.  “Well,” he says in a hurt tone, “ we don’t HAVE to go on vacation at all.”

If he had not made the assumption, the conversation could have gone like this:

She:  “I’d rather go to Florida than to Michigan any day.”
He:  “What do you like best about going to Florida?” ⬅ Note: clarifying question
She:  “It’s always warm and sunny when we go.  In Michigan, I always need a coat.”
He:  “With all my relatives in Michigan, I do like to go there.  Wonder how we could go on vacation and both feel good about it?”
She:  “How about if we go to Michigan in late July?  Then it’s so much warmer than it would be now over spring break.  We could go to Florida now for Spring Break and then to Michigan in July.”

When assumptions are waylaid by a clarifying question - in this example: “What do you like best about going to Florida?” then good communication can take place.

Sometimes your assumption may be right.  

She:  “I’d rather go to Florida than to Michigan any day.”
He:  “What do you like best about going to Florida?”
She (in a snarky tone): “Your family ISN”T there.”

But that is for another article about how contempt is a roadblock to connection!

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