Assume Nothing (aka The Game of Strangers)

The pull of family systems, expectations and family roles are strong. Sometimes it feels like we might never escape. No matter how old we are, we cross the threshold  into the family gathering and we revert into old ways of being.

Unsure what I’m talking about? Here’s my experience.

When I walk into my parents’ house, it is easy for me to start acting like a 12-year-old again. I talk far more (and louder) than usual, trying to fill the airspace so there isn’t room for other unwanted expressions. I often try to gain approval for my intelligence and accomplishments. I interrupt more. I am quick to feel under attack and even quicker to assume that there is underlying unrest and a big blow-up is coming. [Enter panic mode.]

As you can imagine, this isn’t pretty. Over the years I’ve become far more adept at recognizing these traits and redirecting myself and my actions. But it’s not always easy. So many times I’ve left a gathering only to ask myself, Who was that person I turned into? What just happened?!

One belief driving many of these old behaviors is this: My family doesn’t really know me.  And in part I’ve cultivated this divide to keep myself “safe”. If they don’t really know me then they can’t really disapprove. While this may offer temporary solace for an insecure spirit, it also keeps others at a distance and cuts short opportunities for deeper connection and meaning in our relationships. They don’t know me. And I realize I probably don’t know them. I mean, I have a collection of experiences, a lifetime of memories, and my own assumptions about who they are, what they want, why they do what they do. But does any of it ring true for them? I don’t know. So I enter family gatherings with a sense of unrest and unknowing. For me, this often looks like detachment. (Loud, obnoxious detachment? Sometimes.)

What if we could change this?

I have an idea.

Assume nothing.

We think we know them, these people that have been a part of our lives for so long. Sometimes we’re right. And sometimes we’re making assumptions about each other that keep us stuck in the past without even knowing it.

What if… at the next family gathering you made no assumptions? How might your experience be different?

This is much easier said than done. I know from years of experience! So I’m trying to be realistic, gentle with myself, and come up with a plan that might actually work. I’m doing something bold. I’m broaching the topic with the family before our gathering. Yes, I’m going to tell them exactly what I’m planning. It goes something like this:

Dear Family,

I love you all, each and every one of you. I know that even though there is lots of love, there is often stress around our gatherings. We’ve talked to each other over the years about the ways in which we feel misunderstood, like our communication gets hijacked by old patterns and beliefs, by falling into old roles that we know don’t serve us anymore. I want to feel understood. You want to feel understood. And we all crave connection. So let’s try something new. Are you game?

When we meet for _______ (scheduled event or gathering) let’s spend the first 60 minutes (yep, a whole hour) making NO assumptions. That means that I might ask you questions that you’re certain I already know the answer to. But do I? How well do we really know each other? Let’s treat each other with the curiosity, respect, and attention that we treat strangers entering our homes. Let’s get curious about each other. I want to get to know you, the real you. Not the you I remember from years ago, the you I’ve spent a lifetime forming opinions about, the you I’ve unintentionally assumed will fit a certain role in my own idea of what family looks like.

I want to be present with who you are now. So let’s play the Game of Strangers (yes, I did make it up) and see what we learn.

After one hour is up, we can decide how we’d like to proceed. Who’s with me?

With big love and a curious spirit,
Amy

When we want to feel more understood, let’s try being more understanding. 
What might you not know about her?
What delightful thing might you learn about him?
What do you think they would learn about you by playing the Game of Strangers?

Clearly this approach can extend beyond family. It could work with friends, coworkers, or even our partners. What happens when you get curious and really listen to what other people tell you about themselves?

How would you like to play the Game of Strangers in your life? It takes a little courage to ask people to play. But you’ve got loads of that! So go for it, ask, play, and report back. I am curious about you!