You assume that your boss remembers that you will be out of town on Friday. You assume that your partner remembers that you have a late appointment this afternoon. You assume that your co-worker didn’t include you in the invite because your opinion isn’t needed…or wanted. You assume that the CEO knows that you’ve been burning the midnight oil for weeks to get the financials done. You do it. I do it. We all make assumptions. It’s a dangerous path.
Left unchecked and unexamined, assumptions can destroy relationships, teams and organizations. Your boss is expecting you at the ad hoc meeting she set up on Friday and is disappointed that you didn’t show. Your partner is angry that she left work early to surprise you at home, only to find you missing in action. You resent your CEO for not acknowledging all the extra work you’ve been doing on the financials. Assuming is easy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. Just a jump or two. Tying two dots together that really aren’t related. But looking down the assumption path a little further can reveal resentment, lack of trust and undermine your relationships.
Here is what you can do to fix it:
* Clarify. It seems simple to clarify. Obvious, really. But it takes effort. Your brain is hard wired for negativity. You have survived extinction because of this negativity bias, but there are no more saber-toothed tigers chasing you. It is easy to assume that not having been included in the meeting is an intentional slight rather than an oversight. But if you clarify with the meeting organizer that you would like to attend the meeting, if at all possible; or if you proactively tell your CEO that you’ve been working hard on the financials, you change up your personal dynamic. This is clarification and not boasting.
* Listen. Part of the Assuming Process is not actually listening. We ask a question we assume we know the answer to, and then don’t listen. I am so guilty of this. I think I know the answer and as a “show of concern”, I ask the question but never listen to the response. Just a short cut to save time, but so disrespectful. I get distracted by my grocery list or trying to remember if I need to go to the bank, and never hear the response. It could be the time of the meeting that you assume is at 10, but has been pushed to 10:30. You are smiling and nodding but never connect to the answer. Listen.
* Be open to conflict. Yeah. I know. Most of us are conflict averse. We’d rather hold onto our assumptions than actually step into a conflict. Keep everything copacetic. Keep everyone happy. Don’t rock the boat. As a consequence, the safety issue is never brought up, or the budget short fall isn’t discussed, or the poor performance issue is never addressed. Just this week, I addressed a performance issue (i.e. stepped into conflict) with an employee and tested my assumption that they wanted a job modification. Once addressed, I found out that she did not need a modification. Unchecked, it could have lead us down a completely different path. Step into conflict–you can resolve it.
* Slow down. Part of what fuels an assumption is taking a short cut. If you slow down the pace, you will stay in your prefrontal cortex, where you do your best thinking. When you are in a reactive mode, you’re in the back of your head, where your flight or fight response is. Where you don’t do your best thinking. This is why it’s called jumping to conclusions. Your anxiety is up, your cortisol is pumping and your body is ready to run from the saber tooth tiger. My coach starts off every session with a breath-in for the count of 6 a total of 3 times. Slow down and breath to quit jumping to conclusions.
* Forgive. This can be for yourself, as well as others. As Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” I’ve grappled with this myself. It’s hard to forgive someone for an assumption you created and may have carried for decades. It can be the frenemy who didn’t invite you to the graduation party back in 1979, or the family member who never thanked you for the gift, or even when you continued to meddle in your child’s life. The resentment is hurting you more than them. Take out a piece of paper or journal, and forgive them one and all–even yourself. Forgive early and often.
* Use technology. When I travel out of town now, I send my partner a meeting request with the airline information. I will frequently forget to tell him that I’m going out of town, and this keeps him proactively informed. Give your assistant access to your calendar. It’s still a good idea to inform people but a sure-fire safe guard is to use your technology to keep them informed.
* Be positive. Envision the upside. I recently saw Rick Hanson and his great Ted Talk on the topic “Hardwiring Happiness.” It’s so easy to just decide that we are going to be worry warts for the rest of our lives. The thing is, you can develop a positive brain that lets the worry go. It takes work and practice, but we ALL have the capacity to have more positive reactions. This can help keep harmful assumptions at bay. Build positive pathways in your brain.
This is not accomplished overnight. We are all works in-progress. Even if you just spend 5 minutes a day meditating on what is positive in your life, you can start breaking down the pathways to assumptions. One assumption at a time.