How Assumptions Block Authentic Communication

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” – Rudyard Kipling

(reprinted from Authentic Success Newsletter)

If you want to excel at communicating, commit to inquire more and assume less. Unless highly aware, you will likely interpret the meaning of others’ words and deeds through the filter of your experience and belief – rather than theirs.

Assumptions are meanings and intentions that you accept as accurate without proof or verification. They are shortcuts your brain takes to be more productive and efficient. However, assumptions often make everything more distorted and complicated. 

Instead of being clear about what others mean by what they say or do, assumptions ensure you will only be clear about what you think they mean. As  Kipling laments in the above quote, “Never the twain shall meet.” Without curiosity and inquiry, the gulf between message intended and message received is vast and with minimal opportunity to unite.

We live in an age where attention is short and speed is everything. Unfortunately, authentic communication is the result of understanding, which is gained only by the willingness to be curious instead of quick.

Assumptions come from superficial understanding.

In the 1980s, the Rubrick’s Cube, a 3-D combination puzzle, was all the rage. The cube had six faces, each with a different solid color; white, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow. With an internal mechanism, each face of the cube could turn independently, mixing up the colors. Solving the puzzle required that you return it to its original state where each face had the same solid color.

Imagine you and I were standing on opposite sides of a giant, completed Rubrick’s Cube hanging in the air between us. You might see one face of the cube and believe the whole cube was blue. Standing on the other side, I would be confident that the whole cube was green. According to the limited knowledge we had, we would both be right.

The assumption for both of us was that we had all the information needed to make an accurate judgment. However, from a 360-degree view of the cube, we would realize we were both wrong. The puzzle is in fact, both colors and more.

While communicating with others, it’s good to keep this analogy in mind. Remember that you see your “color” because of your viewpoint. If you were to walk around to where the other person viewed the situation, you would see it differently. Assumptions are grounded in one-sided views without inquiry.

How do you apply this to your communication?

To communicate is to “share or exchange information, news, or ideas.” It does not mean to agree or to coerce someone to agree with you necessarily. Sharing is caring, caring about what other people think as much as you care about what you think.

If you want to share more information with others and have them receive it in an open-minded way, then be willing to accept what they want to share with you. You can practice this by learning to embrace two conflicting viewpoints at once; yours and another person. 

When you are willing to hold seemingly contradictory views, you become more curious about everyone’s assumptions. As you ask questions, you begin to see a more holistic or 360-degree view of the situation. All this inquiry leads to deeper understanding and more accurate communication. You may realize that ideas and solutions are not either/or. Either good or bad. True of false. Positive or negative. Right or wrong. Instead, the truth is somewhere down the middle. Most things are not black and white but more shades of grey.

What do you do then when the purpose of communication is to make a decision?

For most issues, we cannot walk around the entire Rubrik’s Cube and see the truth of all the colors at once. The harsh reality is that we have to make decisions with incomplete information. We do the best we can with the data we have. Later, we can form new choices based on new data. However, it is still our responsibility to inquire as much as possible before we make our choices. This helps us err less on the side of assumptions and more on the side of educated decisions.

Learning and growth are available to all of us. Decisions we make today may be very different than ten years ago as a result of our development. You can remember this about other people too. Before you enter a conversation with someone, check your assumptions about them. Decide to clear the deck and provide a more open space to receive who they are today, not who they have been in the past. 
Assumptions are like ice. When we have them, we arrive on the scene already molded into shape with hard edges. When communicating, be more like water and show up in a more fluid state.

Martial artist, philosopher, actor and director Bruce Lee put it eloquently, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.”

Part of authentic communication is setting aside your assumptions so you can temporarily inhabit the other person’s perspective. When you allow yourself to walk in another person’s shoes, you can better understand what they are honestly saying, You can always take back your assumptions if you want to. Or you can allow the experience to leave you a little bit wiser and a lot more enriched.

You can experience all of the colors instead of just one.


Action Tips:
 Curiosity is the cure for assumptions.

  1. When confronted with others’ assumptions, ask open-ended questions that begin with what or how. What makes you feel that way? How did you come to that conclusion? What do you specifically mean when you say that? How do you define that?
  2. When confronted with your assumptions, ask these same questions of yourself.
  3. “I don’t know” is the most powerful phrase you can say. It is not a sign of ignorance but instead of high intelligence. If you can admit that you don’t know something, then you are in a position to learn a great deal more. Learning accelerates growth. Growth is the engine of life.

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Thanks for reading. Until next week,

 Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach

→ Don’t forget to join me for a live, online training August 1st, Resolve To Be Resilient. Learn a method to transform a challenge into a chance to succeed. →  details here

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