Are you the “ass” in “assume”?
Yes, I realize the old saying is “to assume makes an ass of U and me,” but, frankly, I tend to be more concerned about my own role in that type of situation. That’s because I know from painful personal experience how the chagrin of making a bad assumption can take years – or maybe decades – to fade.
A case in point: I took a class in college called “The History of Biology”… and, yes, it was as boring as its title. My main interest in it was putting in the time and getting a B for my final grade.
Due to a triumph of optimistic assumptions over accurate reality, I somehow interpreted one of the instructor’s comments to mean that taking the final exam was optional. Naturally, I opted not to take it.
Did I question my assumption I’d heard correctly? No. Did I question why she would give us that option after telling us at the beginning of the semester that the final exam would count for 30% of our grade? No.
Was I happy with the D I got on my report card as a result of scoring zero on that big honkin’ final? No.
So I proceeded to put on my snarky hat and challenge her as to why I’d gotten that grade. She was far more gracious than I deserved in explaining she’d given us an option on the timing of the exam, not on the completion of it. She then told me that, if I chose, I could sit down right then and take the final, and that she’d be willing to put in a change-of-final-grade request depending on my score.
So I did, and she did, and I ended up with my B in the course. But this happened in the last millennium, and I still haven’t forgotten how humiliated I felt for not only having made a lousy assumption, but also getting snippy about it.
I remember nothing of the course content, but the life lesson that professor taught me is one I’ll remember forever.
I’d guess I’m not the only one to have had some unpleasant experience as a result of making bad assumptions. But if we don’t like the results, why do we still find it so easy to get caught making assumptions?
- We view the world through our own filters, of which we’re often unaware. It’s sort of like not paying attention to the air surrounding us – it just is, and it’s not something that’s actively attended to, despite its vital importance.
- Assumptions can help us make quick (although often poor) decisions, which in turn often allows us to check something off the endless Too Much To Do List.
- We often split our focus, rather than being fully present to a person, conversation, event, etc.
What forms might this assumption assery take?
- You deliver a completely off-track proposal to a client…
- You discover your VA did not upload to the cloud that essential file for your off-site meeting…
- You tune in to the webinar as it’s ending because you failed to confirm the time in your time zone…
- You miss your flight because the convenient parking lot that always has an open spot for you – doesn’t this time…
- You get your first-ever D on a report card…
Need I go on?
And the consequences of making assumptions can be pretty ugly. You may:
- lose a client
- fail to sign a prospect
- trash your credibility
- end up eating a big chunk of money to re-do a project
- transform a neutral situation into a bad one
- make a bad situation even worse
- waste time, money, and energy
- end up looking and feeling like…well…an ass
But there’s also some good news: It is possible to get out of the habit of making unhelpful assumptions. Here’s how to get started:
Here’s an example of the need to question what (you think) you heard: If a passionate sportsman and an adventurous nudist are conversing, one might talk about “hunting bear” while the other talks about “hunting bare.” It would be helpful to know which person means what; otherwise the conversation will take some very curious turns.
Use of this tactic leads directly to the next.
Confirm your mutual understanding of the situation.
This could be as simple as repeating back what the other person said or wrote. If you’re willing to try paraphrasing, you can say something like, “What I think I heard is this…”.
In any case, remember that true communication takes place only when three distinct phases are complete:
- the message is sent
- the message is received
- both sender and receiver confirm the accurate and agreed-upon meaning of the message
Whether you’re the sender or the receiver, always ask yourself if you’ve completed all three steps – especially when the stakes are high.
Get it in writing.
You’ll want to be careful to avoid coming across as mistrusting when you use this one – and it’s worth the extra effort.
Stop fixing misunderstandings. Start avoiding them.
Simply take one more opportunity to state, in writing, your agreed-upon understanding of the interaction with the other person. This gives both of you another chance to clear up any misunderstandings or challenge any unaddressed assumptions that could screw up your results.
You can then roll all three of these approaches into the fourth.
Practice. Practice. Then practice some more.
You don’t have to start challenging your own assumptions in a high-risk situation. It could be something as simple as confirming with a friend the arrangements you’ve made for lunch, rather than assuming you’ll both end up at the same place at the same time.
The main thing is to begin developing the habit of not taking it for granted that you and the other person are on the same page.
Such practice can be even more valuable when you challenge the assumptions that affect your own self-talk, beliefs, and actions.
Speaker and author Byron Katie delves deep into this type of self-inquiry in a process known simply as The Work. It involves asking yourself four probing questions surrounding a counterproductive thought, then doing a “turn-around” on that thought.
The Work takes effort and a willingness to open yourself, both mentally and emotionally, to new possibilities and new ways of viewing the world, but many people consider the results transformational. (If you’d like to explore The Work in detail, visit www.TheWork.com.)
What are your thoughts? How have you found ways to effectively avoid assumption assery? Please share your comments below – because all of us need all the help we can get with this challenge!
And if it turns out that you face an ongoing struggle to manage your thoughts so they help rather than hurt you, perhaps I can give you a hand.
My specialty is showing entrepreneurs how to toss aside what’s not working for them – and that includes habits of thought – so they can focus their efforts on what does create the outcomes they yearn for.
If that sounds like a breath of fresh air, why don’t we explore the possibility of working together? We can figure out if we’re a good fit with each other through a no-charge, no-risk get-acquainted call. In just 40 minutes, we’ll know whether it makes sense to move ahead or not.
If you find yourself assuming this won’t do any good…why not practice challenging your assumption by making an appointment to talk? If both of us agree we’re a poor fit, we move briskly on. But if both of us agree we’re a fantastic fit, we can get started kicking assumption butt right away.
(BTW, thanks to Matthew for posting the ass picture in the Creative Commons section of Flickr.)This entry was posted in communication and tagged effectiveness. Bookmark the permalink.