Symmetry of Expectations

Today, I had a conversation with some young people (late teens/early twenties) who had incredibly strained relationships with their parents.

First, it was strange to realize that I was inclined to step in and represent their parents’ absent perspective (I guess I’m officially a parent).

But, second, the conversation was incredibly enlightening to me as to a fundamentally flawed position that many of us (not just the young) hold that, while partially sensible, is missing an important ingredient. Their position was two-fold:

1) I shouldn’t allow anyone to dissuade me from my positions, not even my parents, and I should be and do what I believe to be right.

2) I should be able to tell my parents how I feel and they should respectfully and open-mindedly listen to me and my positions even if they don’t match theirs.

I think many of us today hold those principles not just with regard to our parents but with others around us (and hence the incredibly divisive sociopolitical dialog of the last few years). The problem with that rationale is that it presumes asymmetric expectations: I need to stick to my position in the face of all opinions, but I expect others to listen to my logic with an open mind. Without a third expectation to bring symmetry of expectations, I’m afraid it’s hard to get anywhere:

3) I should listen to what my parents tell me with equal respect, and process it with an open mind as if there’s a chance I might be wrong.

The problem, I realize, is that while #1 and #2 are easier to follow (after all, they protect our self-interest), #3 is incredibly hard and requires mustering a degree of self-awareness and humility.

To this day, I listen to my parents’ advice with an open mind and equally open heart; fortunately for me, even if I don’t understand their perspective, I know that their guidance is well-intentioned and comes from a place of caring…After all, it’s only those who truly care for us who will tell us what we don’t want to hear.

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