As a certified coach, I feel pretty confident in my training and believe that I am able to step outside my box and see another’s point of view. I’ve trained and practiced suspending my judgment at will for the purposes of not only my coaching work, but for my own learning and enrichment. I was confident in my awareness about assumptions and how they shape our perceptions until I encountered Caroline’s neighbors.
Caroline, one of my oldest friends and whom I have known since we were teenagers, lives in a neighborhood built in the 1920s. All the houses are right next to each other so that each house abuts closely to the house next door. Caroline lives in the middle of her block, so she has a neighbor on each side. One house is neatly kept with a green lawn and manicured landscaping in the front and back and a perfect paint job. On weekends, Caroline’s neighbors can be found weeding their yard and usually give me a warm hello as I walk up Caroline’s steps. Renters likely occupy the other neighbor’s house; the yard is full of weeds and multiple cars are parked on the sidewalk. A couple of times I have seen a man out front, lying under his car to change the oil in his driveway. Due to the close proximity of the houses, Caroline can frequently hear what is going on inside her neighbors’ house. It is not uncommon for Caroline to hear her neighbors’ late night trips to the bathroom, the telephone ringing, answering machine recordings, etc.
This is not an article about domestic violence.
Many people live in close quarters in urban areas and learn to adapt their level of privacy accordingly, so it did not surprise me to learn that Caroline and her downstairs tenant were discussing the fact that their next door neighbors were engaged in a loud argument the night before. I did not think much of it as this sort of thing happens all the time—people find themselves in a disagreement and the yelling starts. Over time, it became an ever-increasing topic of conversation between Caroline and her tenant, both of whom were beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the escalating arguments. It was becoming fairly obvious that the verbal arguments had devolved into verbal abuse and were sadly becoming violent. There was a lot of hand wringing. Should they have called the police last night? What if someone were to be injured or worse? Domestic violence is a complex issue and most people are loath to get involved; Caroline was understandably conflicted.
This went on for months. Every few weeks or so I would hear about another sleepless night due to the arguing and fighting going on next door. One evening I went over to Caroline’s house for a visit only to see a police cruiser, lights on and flashing, parked in front of the house with the neat yard and perfect landscaping. I went inside and asked Caroline what all the drama was about. She replied, “I guess someone finally called the cops.” I said, “Finally called the cops? What do you mean?” I was stunned. Of all the conversations we had about Caroline’s neighbors, over all the many months this was going on, it never occurred to me that the neighbor she was referring to the whole time was her neighbor with the perfect house. I had assumed, without even thinking to clarify which neighbor we were discussing—there was a next-door neighbor on either side, after all—that the domestic violence was occurring at the house with the shabby appearance. How could I be so prejudiced? I pride myself on being an open-minded person who errs on the side of compassion and giving the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. I was horrified when I realized that I made the assumption about the character of Caroline’s neighbors, apparently, based on how their houses looked. Worse, I had not even given it any thought at all. It simply never occurred to me to think past my assumption.
I believe that we are each the product of our own belief system. Indeed Jung said that, “man is so imprisoned in his type of thinking that he is simply incapable of fully understanding another standpoint.” Seeing the police cruiser on Caroline’s block that night was a wake-up call. What other unconscious assumptions do I hold? How do I identify them if I am not even aware of them? And most important, how do these assumptions shape who I am, how I show up in world, and what I believe is possible? Now these are not new questions to be asking myself, I have asked these questions many times before. I have meditated, engaged in a regular yoga practice, and spent hundreds of hours in coaching training and coaching sessions with clients. Asking myself these questions with the new knowledge of how unaware I can still be was both frightening and liberating. Frightening because for most of us, plumbing the depths of our judgments and their associated assumptions often reveals a not-so-pretty picture. Liberating because once we are free from those old assumptions, that awareness opens doors. In my coaching practice we say with awareness comes choice. The deeper our awareness is the more choices we have in how we wish to be in any given moment. And that is a beautiful thing.