Communicating as a Leader

The Problem With Assumptions

Janet Daughtry asked:

One of the things that so often trips us up in effective communication is this thing called assumption. To make an assumption is to form a conclusion about someone or something without evidence or proof. When it comes to people and even environments, we make assumptions almost daily. We are quick to size up people and situations almost immediately and act accordingly. This can be a real problem when it comes to communication and interpersonal relationships. Our assumptions get in the way and cause us to respond in ways that are not always appropriate.

It’s not always what it seems or appears to be. For example:

* We see a disheveled person and we assume they are homeless. (Maybe they just having a bad day!)

* We see a person without a wedding ring and assume they are single or divorced. (Maybe they took it off because it doesn’t fit any more or to play golf like my husband does.)

* A really tall guy at college must be a basketball player.

* Northerners are unfriendly.

* Southerners are stupid.

* Alice wants some help from her husband Mark with the garage. Mark’s former wife nagged him often and was very critical. Alice is simply asking for help but as Alice begins to speak, Mark begins to automatically assume that Alice is going to begin nagging him and criticizing him. Rather than really hear her out, he cuts her off, explodes and walks out. He assumes the worst and doesn’t really hear her request.

* A newlywed couple talks about where to spend the holidays. The husband suggests they stay in town. The wife gets defensive and upset because she assumes that he is taking her away from her family. After talking it out, she realizes that he was not trying to take her from her family. She had made an incorrect assumption. Her new husband had his own assumptions. He assumed that his new bride would want to spend their first Christmas holiday together as a couple.

When it comes to relationships, we bring our life experiences to those relationships. It is those life experiences that often affect our perceptions and our view of things. It is these perceptions that can get us into trouble! When we live out of our own perceptions and assumptions, we often fail to see the other person’s point of view. We are not open to possibilities. We aren’t really listening. We have already formed an opinion and judgment on the matter. In Mark’s case, in the illustration above, he had already formed an opinion about Alice based on his former wife. After all, all women are the same right? His response of blowing up was way out of proportion to her request. It’s call magnification. He took what would have been a one dollar event and made it a $1,000 event. That is not a great thing to do when it comes to communication.

Also, when we make assumptions, we can get into mind reading. We assume we know how the other person thinks or feels. We also assume they should know what we want and need. When they don’t meet our expectations we are totally bent out of shape. Rather than voicing what we need or want to the other person to begin with, we assume they should be able to read our minds. Mind reading isn’t helpful for anyone!

When it comes to communication, assumptions do really need to go. The key word here is communication. I believe much can be done on the prevention end before things get heated or become explosive. In communicating, we need to become better listeners and that means listening with all of our senses. We need to listen to what is being said and what is not being said. Both verbal and non-verbal communication is important. If a person isn’t raising their voice, then why should we? We need to be fully engaged with the other person with our eyes and ears. We must resist formulating our response or coming to a conclusion before we have thoroughly heard them out. In other words, waiting before the conversation is over before interrupting or injecting our own thoughts. We also have to get better at telling people what we need and want to begin with, and not expect them to assume what we need or want. Most people are not mind readers.

Another helpful way to move past assumptions is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ever thought of what they might be thinking, feeling and needing here? Try to see the other person’s point of view. Try to see where they are coming from. Try and look for a win-win situation if at all possible.

Finally, the most important question to ask yourself at all times is what am I assuming here? Are my assumptions based on fact or just assumptions? And the next time you find yourself beginning to tense up and react, take a deep breath, stand back a step, and ask yourself the question, “what am I assuming here?” I bet you will see things differently and you might just save yourself from an argument!

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