As a blind man, I’m often aware of false assumptions that my colleagues make about me. Sometimes their misconceptions are transparent. Other times they are unstated. Still others are imagined, projections of my own anxieties and insecurities.
Consider this example: I was in the break room one morning, making myself coffee with a single-serve capsule-loaded contraption, when a secretary at the law firm where I worked walked in. She quickly took over, insisting that she make my coffee for me.
What to think? Had she assumed I was incapable of making my own coffee?
She seemed anxious about our interaction, and it was infectious. I’m perfectly comfortable with my blindness, and my coffee routine, but I could feel her discomfort encroaching on me, and I resented it.
What to do? I don’t particularly enjoy making coffee. Why couldn’t I graciously accept the favor and go about my day? Because I didn’t want to surrender to her misconceptions, to affirm her assumptions about my abilities, to yield to her anxiety and make it my own.
“I appreciate your help,” I said. “But I can make a cup of coffee. I do it every morning.”
“Oh, I know you can, dear, I’ve seen you do it,” she said. “But you throw away the capsule in the paper recycling bin, and it makes a mess.”
We both laughed, relieved that we had cleared the air. Not only that, but thanks to our conversation I had also discovered the justified basis for her resistance to my coffee-making endeavors — and I learned the location of the trash bin.
We agreed that in the future she could make my coffee when I arrived in the morning — not because I was incapable of doing so, but because she genuinely wanted to be nice. It was really no big deal, and I appreciated the help. We also agreed that the next time she saw me making a blind-guy mistake, she would simply tell me about it.
We are all inclined to believe that we can see into the minds of others, can understand their perspectives and experiences. We’re built to do it — to predict, to infer, to assume. In the process, we unknowingly embellish reality and create fictions.
In the realm of disability, the consequences of this can be especially pernicious. But the point extends to all of us. In my story about the coffee, for example, I was the one who made the faulty assumptions, not the other way around.
The solution is effective communication, but that’s easier said than done. Too often in the workplace, we’re juggling complex and competing means and ends. We may have ulterior motives, short-term and long-term, personal and professional. We may act in the service of these motives at the expense of sincerity and clarity.
While working at that firm, I was asked to prepare a memorandum for one of its most successful and influential partners. I spent a couple of weeks crafting a 20-page document that I felt was thoroughly researched, well structured, lucid and persuasive. In fact, I thought it was brilliant. Pleased with my work and eager to share it, I emailed it to my boss and awaited his adulation.
He bounded into my office a few minutes later. “You can send email?” he asked.
His surprise was evident. It was frustrating, too. If he could hardly believe I was capable of sending an email, what did he think about the attached memo? If he assumed that I relied on others to use my computer, surely he assumed that others must have contributed to my work. Just how much help did he think I needed?
I was angry. But from experience I knew my anger was unhelpful, so I took a deep breath and considered my response. I decided I would first address only the simple question he had posed. He was curious how a blind person sends an email, and that was fair enough. With patience, I demonstrated for him how my screen-reading software enabled me to use my computer.
Then I addressed his sighted-guy mistake. “You know,” I said, “I used the same technology to write the memo I just sent to you. Nobody else worked on it with me.”
“Really?” he asked, surprise again evident in his tone.
“Really,” I said. “This is the same software I used as a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. Nobody helped me with my work there, either.”
There was a long pause.
“That is amazing,” he said.
“Yes, it is great software,” I said. “Thanks for stopping by to check it out.”
After talking to him further, I came to realize that my memo was good, but not brilliant. The partner raised questions I had failed to consider, and together we debated nuances of my analysis. His insights, born of his experience, were valuable. It was a productive conversation.
We worked well together several more times before I left the firm, because we succeeded in rectifying our misconceptions.
Throughout my working life, I have learned that when it comes to understanding one another, we must focus on what we don’t know, not what we think we do know or should know. We must resist the temptation to shut down, to react reflexively or to judge others. We must overcome our fear of causing offense and find faith in the power of benevolent intentions. It is a discipline that is difficult to achieve — but one that is well worth the effort.
Isaac Lidsky is the chief executive of ODC Construction in Orlando, Florida, and the author of the forthcoming “Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly” (TarcherPerigee).