I think I can trace most of the conflicts I’ve had with other people to an assumption made by either that person or myself. I’m actually not very inclined toward getting into arguments with people – I steer clear of conflict when possible (it’s a self-esteem thing, I think). But when I do have a conflict, it’s usually because I thought that the other person thought something bad about me, intended to get under my skin with some action, or put together a plan of attack against me. In actuality, often the other person was just going about his or her daily life, not giving me a single thought. It was my assumption that caused the conflict just as much or more than their thoughts and actions.
On the other side of things, I can trace a lot of the praise I’ve received back to a point where I didn’t make an assumption, but instead went the extra mile to ensure I wasn’t assuming anything about the circumstances involved. Take a situation from my job today… I received a request from one of the salespeople in our company to look at something and see if we could work with it for a customer. In order to make that decision, I needed to match up what the customer expected with what we could do. Instead of assuming what the customer expected (like I would probably normally do), I decided to ask, and instead of assuming the customer knew what we could do, I explained it to them. This required me to look up the history we’ve had with the customer, and it required that I spend a little time describing our systems. These things took time, and I ended up getting praised for “taking extra effort.” Being kind of a newbie at what I do, I relish every little bit of praise I can get (it helps build confidence!), so I was quick to determine what exactly I did to get the positive attention so that I could possibly do it again and get a little more. I traced it back to my lack of assumptions. Although I’ve done this exact kind of thing for a handful of customers before this, and I could have easily assumed that this new customer wanted the same thing, I didn’t do that and it paid off.
So what kinds of things can we do to become naturally less assumptive? Here’s a list I made up…take it or leave it:
- Ask more questions. The only way to know what someone is thinking is to ask – no one is a mind reader. Any decisions you make based on someone else’s thoughts without knowing exactly what those thoughts are is assuming. So we need to ask more questions and better questions in order to get around needing to assume. If you’re like me, you don’t like asking questions – you feel like people will think you’re stupid if you ask a million questions, or you’re afraid you’ll ask a dumb question. But if you think through what you need to know prior to asking questions, your questions will be direct and you get to the issue at hand much quicker. A direct question that is on-topic is never dumb, regardless of what you might think, and you usually don’t have to ask as many questions that way.
- Confront your own assumption. The best way to make sure you aren’t making an assumption in a particular area is to just ask the person if your assumption is right. When I think that my wife is upset about something I said, I can go all day worrying about it, and deal with the negative stuff associated with doing that, or I can just confront my assumption and ask her. Yes, if she is mad, I will have to deal with that right away, but if she’s not, I get to relieve a bunch of stress right away.
- Realize that the only safe assumption is the assumption that your assumptions are wrong. Whew! Say that 5 times fast! I didn’t make this saying up, but it makes sense if you have the time to decipher exactly what it says. If you always assume that your assumptions are wrong, then you’ll do these other things (specifically, ask more questions) that will keep you out of trouble.
- Recognize your own irritation. If you immediately get irritated about something someone says or does, a red flag should go up. You should ask yourself, “am I making an assumption that is contributing to my irritation?” For me, that’s often the case. I’ll make an assumption about something someone does, assuming that they intended for it to irritate me, and I get irritated. Often, they had no idea that it irritated me, and they’re sorry that it did. But I quickly ruin any chance of peacefully working things out by biting their heads off. Then they get defensive, and we go ’round and ’round.