I was at a meeting this past week to address some concerns I had about a young teenager, whose future I am involved with. It happened to be with a psychologist, but that is not an intrinsic part of my point – although it is troublesome to me. The man was not new but was new to the case and had been updated from the old worker. He pretty much began our conversation by telling me that he was aware of, and understood, my concerns. And immediately I knew that this man, at least at this point, was not to be trusted.
What kind of stupid talk was that?
How could I be so certain that he was not to be trusted? Because I had two huge concerns. The first I had spoken of to the former worker, and more than once at that, and I figured that he’d been updated on it. But the second, even bigger, concern I had never voiced to anyone. Ever. So not only had he not – no way – been updated on it, but he sure as hell couldn’t have “understood” it.
This is an example of something I call “not seeing the invisible” or, at least not covering for the possibility that there could exist things that you might not see. It is arrogant. It is common. It is culturally accepted. What would have been wrong with him telling me that he had been updated from the earlier worker on what she understood to be my concerns? Then repeat them for me in his own words perhaps. And then ask me two questions. First, ask me if he had understood accurately what he’d just reported to me; and then second, ask me whether or not that covered the whole of my concerns. A “no” from me to either one opens up a real conversation. A “yes” to both gives us a common ground to start this new relationship from. Either way we begin on the firm ground of mutual respect. We become what I call a “we.”
Why couldn’t he have been open to the possibility that third hand information is rarely accurate enough, even among professionals? And why was he not covering for the possibility that I had other concerns that either I had not spoken of to the first worker or that she had not understood the seriousness of and therefore hadn’t updated him?
I, of course, dealt with all this – I made visible all my concerns – and to his credit the man saw it and fixed it. So I trust that he will fix what he sees: he’s a good man, he appears to have integrity. But I still do not trust that he will cover for what he doesn’t see.
And I kept thinking: what chance does a kid have with “helping” folks such as this, when the kid does not have the internal resources that we develop as we grow up; or the external protections that our families provide for us?
Covering for what one doesn’t see appears to me to be the main work that any person in the helping professions must learn to do. Actually I think it goes deeper than that. Anyone in any relationship needs to do that. I have had some pretty serious experiences in my life where a problem had clearly developed in the relationship and yet the other person made all sorts of assumptions and then acted on them without ever checking with me first – as this psychologist hadn’t done. Rather than being open – to the possibility that there might be something going on that they don’t see. But that openness would require a stance of vulnerability, at least to this extent: I could be wrong; I may have done wrong; I may not see what it is I did wrong; I may have to change my stance. Let me enter into a conversation to find out because it’s the only way to find out. Let me enter into a conversation so that the other person and I are on the same page. I call it, as I said, creating a “we.” And it is not something that happens anywhere near enough. What do we do instead? We create an “us.” Not: let the two of us, as equals, create something real between us, which means having a conversation. (And a real conversation eschews “blame.”)
The man I met in prison, Micheal (sic),one of the three who beat up Abe, has done exactly that: he has entered into a conversation with me, despite the reality that he contributed to the death of my son. He wants real and he’s going after it with the father of the man who died in part because of his actions. Courageous, no? My respect for him is deep.
What stops us from that – from asking questions? Well for one thing, to ask questions is to reveal our recognition that we don’t know everything that we think we should know. I suspect the usual suspect here: the fear of being blamed by the other or ourselves if we find out that we did wrong, especially if the wrong came about because we assumed wrong. I can’t count the number of times I have heard people defend themselves from something that they finally see was wrong, by immediately jumping to: “I didn’t mean to hurt you; I didn’t intend to do wrong.” Who the hell cares? That’s not the point. Most of the evil in this world is not done intentionally; it’s done stupidly. The point is to solve the problem and move on. Where do we get this idea that the wrong is mitigated enough as long as I did it unintentionally?
Conversation requires assuming that we might not get it; listening to the words of the other person, both unspoken and spoken; eschewing blame but holding accountable; and making sure, ultimately by asking questions, that one is responding to the other person. In my experience? There is nothing more wonderful, nor more powerful. I think it the source of many of the miracles I have experienced in my life.
But, sadly, there appears also to be nothing more rare.