Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving Thanks & Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Thanksgiving is upon us! I love this holiday: the food, the parade, the relaxation, the food...oh, the food...

But as any holiday that involves getting together with extended family or other people you don't see regularly, Thanksgiving has it's challenges. Communication is difficult enough with the people we see everyday, but add even a thin layer of unfamiliarity, or the kind of stress associated with producing a small feast, and the possibility of unintended slights, misunderstandings, and general weirdness increases exponentially. We simply lack the ability to get into another person's head to the extent that we can say for certain what the intent was behind another's words or actions.

I was thinking about this a lot a few weeks ago, on the long drive home from my Grammy's funeral. It was so wonderful being with family at that time of grief and processing. I got to see relatives I hadn't seen in years and it felt like no time had passed. I met relatives who I had only heard about from my parents' stories of childhood. I met people who knew my Grammy in different capacities, who adored her, and who were generous with their stories. It was wonderful.

It was also totally weird and downright tense, at times. Sure, there was reuniting and loving going on, but there was also a lot of grieving. A lot of processing.  A lot of, "Did you really just say that?" "Don't use that tone with me!" "What did you mean by that, exactly?" There were plenty of opportunities to feel annoyed, disrespected, and plain old angry. However, every time I felt my hackles rise, I took a deep breath and told myself, "Assume best intentions. Assume best intentions." I've been working on this. Practicing, practicing.

I adapted that mantra from a parenting book: Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. The full phrase, in the parenting context, is: "Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. (p. 120)" I first read this before having my own children and my reaction was, "Well, of course!" I've found the reality of practicing that principal to be somewhat more challenging. When Cadence shoves her little sister in reaction to me stating that TV time is over, it's hard to not think that she's being a total jerk. When she pushes over a pile of laundry I've spent the whole morning trying to fold, and then laughs and laughs, it's hard to not think that she's plain mean and trying to make my life hell. Really, though, she's just a four-year old acting like a four-year old: exerting control where she can when she feels out of control, acting out when she's discouraged, and experimenting with different (albeit annoying) ways to connect. When I can disengage from my initial reaction and give her the benefit of the doubt (and, likely, be more accurate with the assigned intent), I'm able to stay calm and respond more effectively.

At least, I'm working on it.

I've found the idea of attributing best motives or intentions, given the facts, as a useful tool when interacting with adults, as well. And, bonus, this gives me lots of good practice for the much more challenging arena at home with the kids. Before reading Unconditional Parenting, I had a more limited tool set for interpreting interactions. Either I perceived solely through my own lens, or else I engaged my crisis hotline training and the idea of unconditional positive regard. The latter, which involves empathizing with someone and accepting him/her without judgment, made sense on the hotline, interacting with callers with whom I had no history or context for their other relationships and where it didn't make sense to take anything personally. It was much more difficult to practice in my personal life, where boundaries are less defined and it just feels more personal. I really responded to the idea of this middle ground of evaluating different possibilities, based on the objective evidence.

As with any new tool, it takes a good bit of practice. The first step is to simply notice when you're reacting with anger or feeling offended with regards to what someone has said or done. Take a few breaths and take a few moments to brainstorm some different possibilities of where the words/actions are coming from (even better - talk it over with someone you trust who was present at the time. I greatly appreciate when I can check my impressions against someone else's - it's an eye-opening exercise). Attribute the best possible intention, consistent with the evidence, and move forward with that new understanding.

I wish you a peaceful and reflective Thanksgiving, full of rejuvenating connections, and, of course, lots of pie.

Turkeys on the Fence in Santa Teresa County Park by Don DeBold, cc license

I referenced a book that has been incredibly influential in my/Jason's/our approach to parenting. Jason actually bought it shortly after we decided to move in together, which was also about a month after close friends of ours had their first baby. I thought Jason's purchase was a way of communicating to me that he was ready to get married and have children right away...and that's an amusing story for another time. :) For now, here's the full citation for the book:

Kohn, Alfie (2005). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from rewards and punishments to love and reason. New York, NY: Atria Books.

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