How Assumptions Sabotage Your Communications
- Steve Williamson, VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
- Monday, September 12, 2022
There are many ways for communications to fail, but few impact the accuracy and efficacy of your message more negatively than assumptions. Learn how assumptions are preventing others from getting your full message.
Can you hear me now?
Do you remember that mobile phone service commercial where a guy wanders around in different locales on a cell phone, asking the person on the other end of the line, "Can you hear me now?"
Active listening and seeking feedback to make sure what you said is what was heard go a long way. Moving your effort to be a more effective communicator upstream, to the place where you are forming your thoughts and message, can ensure your message is heard even more accurately and fully.
To improve your comms, start with the assumptions you're making about your audience, whether it is an individual or a group, and identify how your assumptions may be sabotaging your message.
When you assume someone knows what you mean...
What you say and what you mean may be two different things. Did you say something that offended the other person without that being your intention? This is a common example, but not all differences between intention and the actual message you give fall into this negative category.
The solution is to think about what you're intending to convey. What is the core essence of your message? Choose the message that most closely aligns with your intention and then ask for feedback to ensure what was heard is what you wanted to get across.
When you assume someone knows additional important details...
We like to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their expertise and their knowledge. We assume they know things even if the only evidence we have that they do is their job title. Perhaps you came into your information first and it hasn't been widely distributed yet. Or maybe you have experienced different situations than the other person.
The solution is to err a bit on the side of over-informing at first to make sure any prerequisite knowledge is in place before you move onto your main message. Don't be afraid to ask if the other person is already up to speed on key data or information, and never give the impression that ignorance is a negative or people will revert to nodding as if they know what you're talking about just to keep from being put under a harsh spotlight.
It is human nature to assume that everyone else approaches situations and challenges the same way you do. After all, why wouldn't they?
When you assume the other person would do things the same way you would...
It is human nature to assume that everyone else approaches situations and challenges the same way you do. After all, why wouldn't they? This is a common communication fallacy in training as well as supervisor/subordinate interactions. It is also a common assumption that the only way something can be done correctly is your way.
The solution is to recognize that your way is just one way. Others may see the situation from a different perspective that might be an even more effective way of approaching it. Most commonly their approach may not be better or worse, but is best for them because it is their natural way of doing it. Their way doesn't have to be your way.
When you assume others see the world through the same lens you do...
Most people are unaware they fall into this assumption trap because it is a reflection of our natural, innate and hardwired way of interacting with the world around us. When we see a red balloon, we assume everyone else also sees a red balloon. Figuratively speaking, this isn't true. Everyone sees the world through the lens of their own psychometric hardwiring coupled with the influence of their unique set of life experiences.
The solution is to remind yourself that your perspective matters but so does the perspective of everyone else you meet. Their hardwired way of looking at the world is likely to differ from yours, either a little or by quite a lot. You can learn from their perspective, so don't be afraid to listen to it and honor it.
Everyone has their own unique learning style.
When you assume others learn the same way you do...
Everyone has their own unique learning style. Although learning styles can fit into a few broad categories (hands-on, visual, trial-and-error, etc.), each person's preference is based on how they are psychometrically hardwired. Don't make the assumption that what has worked for you in the past will be an effective or efficient way for others to learn new things, too.
The solution is to get meta with it — learn how people learn. If you are in a teaching or supervisory position, get good at recognizing and then teaching to different personality types. Present your material in the way that works best for your students, not what works best for you.
When you assume others will respond to challenges or stress the same way you do...
The differences between people in how they react to stressful situations can roughly be grouped into four categories: intimidation, manipulation, interrogation, or aloof judgment. Each person's negative conflict resolution strategy will be a unique variation of those four, coupled with influences from their life experiences. Expecting others to react to conflict the same way you do can just make the situation worse.
The solution is to learn how people react to conflict, identify it early, and change your approach and message to deescalate their stressed reaction, not make it worse. Don't assume they'll react the same way you do, and even if they do, remain cognitive instead of emotionally reactive so that you can control your message and keep the situation as constructive as possible.
Some people are leaders, others are followers, and some are in between depending on the circumstance.
When you assume others will have the same level or type of initiative you do...
Some people are leaders, others are followers. Some are in between depending on the circumstance. If you go through your professional and personal life assuming others should have your identical level of initiative, you'll go through life being disappointed.
Make difference your default.
The solution is to make a counter assumption, that others you meet or work with don't have your same level of initiative. Make difference your default. Don't be afraid to ask the other person about their preferred level of involvement in motivation and leadership opportunities, and let them set the pace of their own initiative. This way you won't be disappointed if it differs from your own.
When you assume others share your love or distaste for group activities...
This assumption is similar to the previous mention about initiative and the other assumptions in general. It stems from the belief that others will be just like you. In the case of a person's love or distaste for group activities, they might share your preference, but that will be the exception and not the rule.
The solution is to ask how the other person feels about doing things as a group. Many people are happy to engage in group activities but won't be the one to step up and lead from the front; they're quite happy to follow along. A few others won't be happy unless they're taking charge. A small subset won't want to participate in the group event at all. Ask respectfully and honor the individual's preference.
Some people thrive on working in isolation while others feel like their very soul is worn away by it.
When you assume others share your feelings about working in isolation...
Like group activities, everyone has a particular preference when it comes to working in isolation. Some thrive on it, while others feel like their very soul is worn away by it. Whichever perspective applies to you, even if it's right down the middle of the road, don't make the assumption that the other person feels the same way.
The solution is to ask. Most people are self-aware enough to recognize how they feel about working alone. Respect their perspective and do what you can to accommodate it when it differs from your own preference.
When you assume others like to communicate the same way you do...
This pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? This whole article is about communication fallacies stemming from assumptions, and how to address specific circumstances.
The solution to correcting ineffective communication that stems from making assumptions is to... stop making so many assumptions. It sounds easier than it is, but it's definitely not an unachievable goal. When you are communicating with individuals or groups, evaluate what you are wanting to convey and tailor the way you communicate based on your audience. You have your own preferences, of course, and you should recognize them and play to your strengths but not at the expense of your audience.
When in doubt, use active methods to ensure that what you are communicating is being received in an accurate way.
Don't be afraid to ask, and you'll soon stop letting those pesky assumptions sabotage your communications.
Go to eRep.com/core-values-index/ to learn more about the CVI or to take the Core Values Index assessment.
Innovator/Banker - VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
Steve has a career in project management, software development and technical team leadership spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (ruckerworks.com), and when he isn't writing, he enjoys cycling, old-school table-top role-playing games, and buzzing around the virtual skies in his home-built flight simulator.
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