At the root of every mis-communication, of every misunderstanding, is an assumption. We assume that people know exactly what we mean. We assume that people interpret things the same way we do. We assume that we have been clear enough–emphatic enough–frequently enough to get our point across. We don't check our assumptions.
Oftentimes, we have not been clear. We don’t know that, so we go about our business operating under the assumption that others will do exactly what we intended as a result of our communication. When they fail to deliver what we expected, we are disappointed, perhaps even angry. That’s not fair.
Similarly, we make assumptions when others communicate to us. We over-rely on our past experiences and on our own limited frame of reference. We think we know what others mean because we filter what they say to calibrate it with what’s familiar, comfortable or desirable to us. That’s not fair either.
5 Ways to Check Our Assumptions
We could all improve our communications simply if we simply would check our assumptions. Here are some ways that we can do that:
1. After communicating an idea, especially one that has a follow-up action item, ask the other party to repeat back to you what they will do.
2. When someone else is expressing a follow-up item or an important idea to you, paraphrase it back to them whether they ask you to or not. This will help to expose any misinterpretations or assumptions that could cause problems later.
3. Ask questions and be open to others asking questions too. In fact, invite others to ask you questions. Set an expectation that questions are okay and should be asked. After you have expressed what you were thinking, ask the other person, “What do you think about that?”
4. When explaining or describing something, start earlier in the story than you think you should. Don’t expect others to enter into the conversation where your mind currently is – they aren’t there with you yet. Back up. Be sure to give context and back-story so that others are up to speed.
5. Remember that different people experience things in different ways than you do. So be careful not to assume that your emotions are shared. Your priorities are also likely to be different than someone else’s may be. By clarifying how you feel and what you value, you will avoid making the assumption that others are right there with you. Chances are that they are not.
We make the most assumptions in conversations with those whom we are close to. We may make these assumptions because we take people for granted. We elevate our expectations to an unreasonable level. We expect those nearest and dearest to us to understand us at a very deep level. That’s why we think that they will always, without exception, understand exactly what we mean even when we’re not very clear. It’s why we get so easily disappointed when our communications with these people fail.
Communication shortcuts seldom work. If you hear yourself saying, “But you should’ve known,” then chances are that you should’ve made something known. If you hear others saying this to you, then a good strategy going forward will be to ask more questions and get the clarity you need. Explain to others that you did not intend to misunderstand but that there was an assumption made that compromised the communication. Look for those assumptions in all of your conversations and call them out so they won’t derail communication.
In all communication, we have an equal responsibility to understand and to be understood. To avoid frustrations that follow assumptions, be proactive. Instead of assuming, be clear and complete in all of your communication. Instead of leaving room for others to make assumptions, check for understanding. By doing so, you will be more effective as a communicator. And those who are communicating with you will feel more effective, too.
Deb Calvert is a TLC Certified Master and expert on the evidence-based Five Exemplary Practices of Leaders. Book Deb today to speak at your leadership events, and subscribe to our blog for weekly articles on how to improve your leadership skills.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published June 2016 and has been recently updated.