How often do you experience behavior in someone else that you cannot understand? What do you typically do to make sense of that behavior? Part of the human condition is to jump to conclusions based on assumptions about people and that is like diving down a rabbit hole. When that happens, we plunge into murkiness, unclear of where we are heading only to run into a dead end or an alternative reality. As defined by Oxford, “an assumption is a thing that is accepted as true, or certain to happen, without proof.” These assumptions are often negative as are the attributions ascribed to people regarding their actions and behavior. When we come to believe these assumptions and attributions and act on them, we usually find ourselves in situations that could have been avoided, especially in interpersonal communication.
Assumptions are one of the most frequent causes of interpersonal strife and misunderstandings and often lead to drama. We see this occurring routinely now with political discourse. In many cases, we attribute causes to someone else’s behavior based on assumptions; we convince ourselves that we are right about those causes and then act on those assumptions. Our behavior towards one another is influenced and driven by those assumptions particularly when we attribute negative intentions to someone else’s behavior. Anymore, just an opposing viewpoint on any topic can generate negative assumptions and attributions, making one person right and the other wrong and then drama ensues. According to recent reports, this is occurring in both workplace and personal relationships.
What are the pitfalls of making assumptions about others’ behavior?
Relationships are often harmed when we make assumptions about someone and then act on those assumptions. It can also damage our image, trust, and credibility by making us appear out of touch, and inflexible.
Making assumptions can make us look irrational, illogical, uninformed, unreasonable, or even worst, ignorant, due to the disconnect assumptions often have from reality.
Assumptions about others or groups of people keep us in an alternative reality, often having little to do with what is actually taking place. That alternative reality then drives our subsequent actions, impeding productivity and collaboration.
Assumptions keep us focused on something outside of ourselves that we have little or no control over and they are often inaccurate, especially when we are trying to attribute motivation to someone else’s behavior. We make up stories in our heads, informed by our experiences, insecurities, emotions and beliefs. We rarely do anything to verify if the story we made up has anything to do with reality. Once we discover that our assumptions are inaccurate, the damage may have already occurred to the relationship or situation.
What does it take to clarify an assumption? Information, facts, the truth, and a reality check. Our assumptions about others are generally driven by emotions such as anxiety, fear, frustration, overwhelm, insecurity or anger. These are considered negative emotions and they cloud our ability to see
things as they are. How can you shift out of making inaccurate assumptions about someone?
- To assess whether your assumptions are accurate, consider the person’s performance in other situations and with other people. Ask yourself if you are accurately assessing the behavior you see or is your assessment being colored by a skewed perspective?
- If you do not understand why someone does what they do, give them the benefit of the doubt. Most people are well intentioned. If you have no history of someone acting in bad faith, maybe you are making an unfair assumption. Practice humility by considering whether or not you have judged them unfairly.
- Often we convince ourselves that we are right about why someone does what they do because we are committed to a story or a narrative we make up about that person or group of people. Check your perspective with the person involved or get others to share their perspectives with you to help you see things more accurately.
Effective interpersonal communication is essential to our well-being and success, in every situation. The good news is that strengthening our ability to work through interpersonal strife and misunderstandings begins with us, which leads to more harmony. How can you empower yourself today to avoid assumptions about others and improve your interpersonal communication? We would love to hear about your success or support you in your process to improve. Contact us here.
Sue Kenfield specializes in transforming complex human dynamics within organizations, communities and with individuals. We empower people and organizations to maximize their success by improving leadership, communication, and emotional/behavioral intelligence skills. We elevate performance, minimize turnover and improve the bottom line through our behavioral intelligence consulting, leadership and team development, conflict management, and executive coaching programs. Sue Kenfield is also available as a speaker on the topics listed above. Contact us to learn more.