“Don’t assume. It makes an ass out of you and me.”
Sure, it’s a fun phrase, and we’ve all heard it. But how many of us have really given serious attention to the damage assumptions cause in our lives and how to reduce their negative impact?
What’s the Big Deal About Assumptions?
Human beings make assumptions.
It is part of what makes us human. It is impossible for us to cognitively process all the sensory input that we take in from the world and still function, we predict things based on our previous experience.
Some of these predictions don’t cause any trouble: we assume the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening.
Some assumptions are true until they aren’t and cause only minor hiccups when they don’t hold true: we schedule our days on the assumption that our kitchen appliances will work today if they worked yesterday. When the dishwasher fails, it is an inconvenience and we need to make arrangements to make do without it until we can repair or replace it. Most of us also carry an assumption that things break, which helps us make sense of the disruption. Although we feel frustrated, there is no lasting damage except possibly to our bank accounts.
When we make assumptions about people, we can create long-term problems.
The fundamental assumption we make about other people is that we know what they think and how they relate to the world. Unless we have strong evidence to the contrary, we assume people see the world from the same perspective that we do. But everybody has different lived experiences that shape how they see they world. No two people have the same experience inside their own heads. The truth is that we never know what someone else is thinking unless they tell us.
We live our lives in relationship with other people. We are wired to seek out emotional connections with others, and we are not physically self-sufficient.
When we makes assumptions about people, we don’t see them as they really are. We see them as we think they are. And we relate to them as though they are the characters in the stories we are writing inside our own heads. At the very least, this creates a distance between us.
We drive other people away.
How do you feel when you sense that someone has made an incorrect assumption about you?
When someone makes an assumption about me, I can tell that they are not seeing me as I am. This either pushes me away or prods me into more aggressively asserting myself. And if I don’t address the assumption in the moment, my discomfort grows and turns into distaste, distrust, or resentment. There certainly is a sense of loneliness in the company of this other person.
You may not have quite the same experience, but it is unusual for a sense of intimacy in a relationship to survive more than a few assumptions being made about us.
We get in our own way.
Making assumptions also has an impact on the person making them.
Have you ever learned something about someone that you wished you had known earlier because it would have made you more sympathetic to them or more willing to ask them for help?
We make up stories in our head about people all the time and then we act as if they are true.
We observe something and tell a story that makes us think we need to protect ourselves. Someone is late for a meeting and we assume they don’t respect our time, so we stop inviting them to meetings they should be at. Someone has a more expensive car that we have and we assume that they will judge us negatively because we don’t have as much money as they do, so we hold back from getting to know them. We have a bad experience with one person who always wears trendy clothes and we start requiring all people who wear trendy clothes to treat us well before we talk to them.
We assume people think like us. A couple decides to get married and they both assume a marriage should look like their parents’ marriage. Unfortunately, the division of labour in each other childhood families were totally different, so each resents the other for failing to do their part.
Being “nice” leads to miscommunication and resentment.
Many of us have been trained to be polite and nice. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask challenging questions. Make sure you maintain harmony. Make other people feel comfortable. Act like everything is fine.
Being kind and respectful of others is wonderful. Good relationships require us to treat each other as valuable. Surface politeness, however, can cover a multitude of sins. When we choose to maintain a surface calm instead of risking disharmony by asking for what we need, raising controversial topics, or probing to see what somebody meant when they said something, we create a situation where we have to guess what is going on with each other.
And when a relationship requires guessing, we make assumptions and misunderstand each other. And eventually misunderstanding leads to resentment or outright conflict.
Being “assertive” isn’t the answer.
Don’t let people take advantage of you. Let them know what’s what and demand respect. Make sure they hear you.
If you weren’t raised to be polite and nice, chances are you heard these messages. You were taught to be assertive and not settle for second best.
The underlying assumption behind this way of being in the world is that people are always competitive. And if this is your default, you go through life judging who is winning and who is losing. The cost of this mindset is that you never meet a person on an equal footing and you never get to relax.
There are better ways to deal with assumptions.
We all make assumptions. That is human. We will never stop making assumptions. What we can do, however, is stop letting our assumptions run the show.
We can become conscious of our assumptions and choose to disregard them in favour of finding out what is real.
3 techniques for reducing the power of assumptions.
Here are 3 ways to become free from your assumptions.
- Noticing assumptions and naming them
- Byron Katie’s 4 questions
- Clearing assumptions with a partner
1 – Noticing assumptions and naming them
As soon as you realize you are making an assumption, you start having the power to choose how to respond to it. You can practice recognizing your assumptions in simple ways. When you are going through your day, you will see people: other shoppers in a store, people waiting for buses on the street corner, the person in front of you at the ATM. Ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about this person?”
Starting with strangers can feel safer than looking at the assumptions we make about our friends, co-workers, and family members, so you might choose to start there. The biggest payoffs happen in our closest relationships, though.
Remember not to judge yourself for having assumptions. Human beings make assumptions. It is what we do.
When you notice an assumption, name it. Start with “The story I am making up is…” and fill in the blank with your assumption. This will remind you that your assumption is a product of your own mind. Whether it is true or not is less important than the fact you made it up.
When you are with someone and you notice that you are guessing about what is going on inside their head, you can check out your assumption with them. A simple structure is to say “The story I am making up is…” and then ask them what is really going on with them.
2 – Byron Katie’s 4 questions
The Work of Byron Katie is entirely focused on unpacking assumptions. The heart of the process is 4 questions to ask of every thought that is causing you suffering and an exercise in turning the thought around.
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it is true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
And the turnaround exercise: Change the thought so it refers to you, the other, and to the opposite. And then ask yourself if that statement is as true or more true than your initial statement.
Katie’s turnaround part of the work is about looking for other possible ways of looking at things.
For example, if I am making the assumption that my friend, Anne, is disrespectful of my time, the turn arounds could be: I am disrespectful of Anne’s time, I am disrespectful of my time, and Anne respects my time.
When I inquire into the truth of those statements, my brain starts finding evidence in my memory banks for all of those statements. The reality is that I don’t know whether or not Anne respects my time, and the truth is probably that she respects my time to a certain degree and some other things also matter to her. By questioning my assumption and engaging my curiosity, I lead myself to a closer encounter with reality and allow myself to see myself and Anne a little more clearly.
You can do this work journalling, talking it through with a partner, or as part of a formal session with a certified facilitator.
3 – Clearing assumptions with a partner
This exercise is a little more complicated and requires both people involved to understand the parameters of the exercise. When done well, it can dramatically increase the sense of connection between two people. It is important to follow the script precisely and avoid further processing of the assumption during this exchange. Don’t do this with someone without being sure you both understand the process.
Remember, the issue is not whether the assumption is right or wrong. The point is to remove the power of the assumption. This exercise should only be done in service of a better relationship with someone.
The person who has made an assumption (“Assumer”) approaches the person they have made an assumption about (“Witness”).
Assumer: Can I share an assumption with you?
Witness: [Only if they are ready and willing to participate.] Yes.
Assumer: The assumption I made about you is…
Witness: What is the impact of that assumption on you?
Assumer: [Answers honestly]
Witness: What is the impact of that assumption on our relationship?
Assumer: [Answers honestly]
Witness: Thank you.
Assumer: Thank you for witnessing me.
Notice that the Witness never responds to the assumption. The job of the Witness is to ask the questions and be with the Assumer. The Witness is not required to take the assumption as truth or as feedback. The assumption is not about the Witness. It is a product of the Assumer’s imagination.
It is entirely possible that the Witness will hear something in the assumption that they want to think about or talk to the Assumer about further at some point, but any reflection or conversation should happen later and entirely at the Witness’s discretion.
The power of this exercise is that it releases the Assumer from their assumption so that they can engage more directly with the other person.
Practice makes better.
Getting out from the power of our assumptions takes practice and persistence. Our brains are always assuming, so we have many opportunities every day. And with practice, we slowly develop awareness of our assumptions and the power to choose how we relate to them.
How will you practice this week?
Let me know in the comments or on my Facebook page.
This post is part of the 2017 Blogging from A to Z Challenge.