Friday, 31 July 2015

Assumptions & Communication

Once upon a time quite a while ago, Robin and I ran a communication/team building training for a company that wanted its people to work together more cohesively.  We were going along just fine and at one point introduced the idea of assumptions getting in the way of good communication.

We were rather taken aback when one of the staff members stood up and said “I never make assumptions.” 

Well! It wasn’t quite all hell breaking loose, but her colleagues took great issue with her and did our job for us by saying quite vociferously that it’s impossible not to make assumptions.

It really, truly is impossible not to make assumptions. Not only that, many assumptions are good and necessary so we aren’t reinventing the wheel over and over again. I assume my car will start in the morning and it would be really aggravating if it didn’t. I’d go as far as to say that much of our stress is caused when we assume something is going to happen and then it doesn’t.

Take a quick think to imagine the many things you assume are going to happen (hot water coming out of the tap, lights turn on with the flick of a switch, school doors will be open when you arrive with your children, commuter train will leave on time) and then what happens if any of those things go wrong (boiler broken, fuse burnt out, weather closing school for the day, signal failure at Clapham Junction).  Eeek!  Stress. 

Some assumptions are good and when they fail, anxiety and worry descends.

However, those kinds of assumptions are generally based on fact and history.  The hot water comes out of the tap because the boiler gets serviced every year and therefore, we assume it will continue to do so. A friend says she’ll pick me up at 2 to go shopping and I assume that’s what will happen because she’s always been on time or lets me know well in advance why she won’t be there at 2.

Now let’s look at the assumptions that really get in the way of people communicating well. Those assumptions are based on one of a few reasons:  1) it’s what I want to happen rather than what might actually be going on; 2) I’ve made up what I think is someone else’s motivation and then act as though what I made up is true; 3) I let my prejudices and biases get in the way and assume things without any evidence whatsoever; 4) I let my prejudices and biases get in the way and assume things by collecting evidence that in itself might be based on incorrect assumptions.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

It isn’t.

Assumptions sprinkle our communication throughout the day.  Some will be based on fact (I ask a colleague to write a report and he says fine, no problem.  I’m going to assume it will be done on time because he’s always completed his reports on time). Some will be based on hope (I see there’s a back-log of enquiries that came in over night and I assume someone will deal with them.  Now we’re beginning to get into dodgy territory where I’ve made an assumption without checking it out with anyone). Some will be based on annoyance (I see someone doing something I don’t like and assume they’re deliberately doing it.  Dangerous waters ahead).  Some will be based on my prejudices (see, she’s lazy, just as I thought.  Now I’ve broken through the thin ice).

Aside form assumptions that are based on fact, all the rest are ones that can get you into a whole lot of hot water.  Or cold water if you’ve fallen through the thin ice as mentioned above.

As with the earlier exercise, think of just one instance that’s happened over the past week where you made an assumption that backfired about what someone else was thinking or what someone else was supposed to do. It doesn’t have to be major; the little assumptions can accumulate into big problems too!

Now look back and see if you had checked out that assumption would it have made a difference.  In other words, if I had checked with members of my team about who was going to handle the overnight enquiries, first, my mind would be at rest because I’d know what was going on and second, if everyone else had assumed someone else was handling them, the task could then easily be assigned.

Assumptions that aren’t checked out lead us to make conclusions that are often not going to happen as we would wish, which in turn leads to poor communication and eventually can turn to blaming and finger pointing (“I assumed you were on top of that.” “Why would you assume that?  You know how much work I have on my plate.” Etc., etc., etc.).

If there’s one piece of advice to avoid a lot of miscommunication, it’s to check out the assumptions that leap into your head. You’ll know they’re there because you will most likely have a mental tick list and will have ticked a task or two or three off the list without actually checking with the people involved that the stuff is going to get done.

Unlike that delegate from long ago, if you can recognise the assumptions you make and get in the habit of checking them out your communication will improve 10 fold.  Guaranteed.  (Hmmm, is that an assumption, or based on fact??).


Check out Impact Factory’s range of Communication courses and our Elite Five Day Communicate with Impact Training.  Also check out our Appraisals and Performance Management, Influencing, Assertiveness and Negotiation courses.


By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

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