Updated: Apr 27, 2018
I'll never forget the first time it occurred to me that my assumptions about how someone responds to me might not be true. I was in college, walking past the dining hall and smiled as I saw a close friend walking toward me. She was looking down, and when I called out to say hello, she looked up, barely smiled and kept on walking. If that had happened in high school, I would have been sure that I had done something to upset her and would have worried about it endlessly. But this particular fall morning, a new thought occurred to me, which was, "This probably has nothing to do with you." As I let that thought roll around in my head, it built momentum and it made more and more sense. Nothing had happened between Andrea and I, why would she all of a sudden be mad at me? Why would I make an assumption that it had something to do with me? It made way more sense that something else entirely was going on with her. What a relief!
I had always been interested in the dynamics of communication but that day in college began my somewhat obsession with the subject, so it felt natural as I was choosing my specialization in coaching that I would choose to become a communication coach.
In my coaching, I come back time and time again to the principles of the national bestseller, The Four Agreements. The 3rd agreement, "Don't Make Assumptions", is the simplest and quickest agreement to begin making with yourself. In the coaching world we differentiate between interpretation and assumption but in The Four Agreements interpretations and assumptions are seen as one that snowballs into another. "We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing." don Miguel Ruiz
Before I discuss how to stop the drama, it might help to know that the reason we make assumptions is because we are hard wired as humans to look for threats in our environment. Thousands of years ago, in order for us to survive, we needed to perceive all experiences with suspicion, to protect us and keep us alive. Now, in our world today, doing so results in assumptions which creates drama, suffering and, even worse, mass anxiety.
My positive psychology courses also explain this as the reason why we as humans have a negative bias versus a positive bias. If we hear 9 compliments and 1 criticism, no one would argue that it's the 1 negative comment we dwell on.
Enough about that, and onto - how can we stop the drama? As the article mentions, an area most people can relate to is making assumptions when it comes to interpreting text messages. A short response from a friend can make us think they are upset with us. If we just asked directly, "That was a short reply, is everything okay?" we can quickly find out if what we are thinking is true. In all likelihood, they were preoccupied and it had nothing to do with us. It all comes down to questioning the assumption thought, and getting clarity.
If the idea of coming right out and asking someone something so direct leaves you trembling with fear, another way you can work to stop making assumptions is to make the choice to always give the benefit of the doubt. Brene Brown suggests in her book, Rising Strong, “What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?” Our neighbor doesn't wave to us like they normally do as we pull into our driveway? Making a generous assumption means we can think of all the other possible reasons for them not to wave, instead of it being because our weeds got a tad overgrown and they are annoyed with us about it. I try to role model this behavior for my children as much as possible so they can learn what a blessing giving the benefit of the doubt can be. If they aren't invited to a party, I offer the suggestion that the reason is because there was a limited number of spaces, not because it had anything to do with them.
Asking for clarity and being generous with assumptions isn't just a form of kindness we can show others, it helps us tremendously as well. It saves the worry and negative emotions attached to assumptions. Think about the last time you had a misunderstanding with a friend, spouse or family member. Think about the energy spent, replaying the event in your head, the amount of time you spent talking about it and dwelling on the situation. Now think about what could have happened instead if you had just asked for clarification as soon as the misunderstanding had occurred.
In relationships, we assume our partner knows what we need without having to say it, which can lead to many arguments. However, we can choose to be clear and specific and ask for what we need. Last weekend I wanted to talk to my boyfriend about something that made me feel very vulnerable. At the beginning of the conversation I let him know that it was a sensitive subject and asked him if he could try to be extra careful with his words in response. He was grateful for the request and it helped him to know the place I was coming from. If your partner is one to hand out advice when you want a quiet ear, or the opposite they don't give any suggestions at all, just ask for what you want. "I understand you are trying to help by giving suggestions how to fix this, but what I really need is you just to listen and be supportive in that way."
There are countless examples of how we make assumptions all day, every day, and the best thing we can do is to find the courage to ask the question to receive clarity. The good news is, because everyone makes assumptions, people understand the inclination to assume, and are usually happy to be able to clear things up.
The incident from college might seem small and it was, but it laid the foundation for me that my assumptions might not always be correct. Which further meant, not everything was about me, which leads to the 2nd agreement from The Four Agreements, "Don't Take Anything Personally", which I'll discuss next week.