Making Assumptions: Can You Catch Yourself?

Have you ever wondered what was going on in another person’s mind when they spoke or acted in a way that for you was unimaginable? Did you leap into curiosity or judgment?

When our indoor pool was still open, I was enjoying the hot tub after my daily swim when I was joined by a fellow early morning swimmer. We know each other by name but otherwise not well. Without preamble, he began talking about the news of the day as if I was in his brain, knew exactly where he was coming from, and agreed with his views on the politics involved.

He was really upset with what was going on in the primary race (COVID-19 wasn’t yet a common topic of discussion) and he assumed I was also upset. I couldn’t tell if he expected me to engage in the conversation or if he just needed to be heard. I didn’t engage. I was enjoying my quiet time in the tub, and didn’t want to encourage his strong emotions. I also felt differently about some of things he was angry about.

Regardless, he kept up a one-sided conversation, with increasing anger and frustration. I smiled and nodded and finally left the tub, saying, “I hope your day gets better.”

Making Assumptions

What struck me most about this brief encounter was the assumption my hot tub friend made that I wanted to talk about these topics at that hour of the morning in that particular setting, and — more surprising — the assumption that I had the same views and feelings.

I’ve noticed this a lot lately. Regardless of the topic, we (and I include myself in this) are encouraged to take sides on just about everything, from face masks to Facebook. For example, I’ve noticed myself making assumptions that everyone will feel similarly about the pandemic, mass gatherings, or the state of the country in general. And it’s not helpful to solving the difficult problems we’re facing.

In my most recent book, Turn Enemies Into Allies, I write about a concept called the false consensus effect, which is the tendency to believe everyone thinks the way we do and has similar beliefs and values. Amy Edmondson, in her book Teaming, calls this effect our “Basic Human Challenge” — the fact that it is difficult to learn if we know our perspective is more accurate than others’ perspectives. It is even more difficult since research tells us that our brains are wired to make us think that our view of reality is, in fact, Reality.

Can You Catch Yourself?

Believing our reality is The Reality is a naive way to go about life. It’s disrespectful as well, although I don’t believe people mean to be disrespectful. I think most of the time we’re blind to the fact that we’re even making these assumptions. We have to catch ourselves in the act!

I’m trying to get better at this. Here’s what I’m doing so far. I’ll keep you posted.

State my view as “my view” or “this is what I think.”

Talking recently with two good friends, I wanted to discuss the social justice demonstrations that had taken place in our city the day before. I was curious about how they felt, although I realized (in time!) that I was about to make an assumption that we all felt similarly. So, instead, I said I was curious about their thoughts on it, and I volunteered mine first, saying: “This is what I think about what happened yesterday… “

Ask if the listener feels the same or differently.

Then I asked how they were thinking about it. In this case, we did feel similarly, although with some differences, and I felt happy that I caught myself making the assumption.

It’s really quite simple, once I catch myself, to overcome what is a natural tendency — and basic human challenge. The keys are skillful self-inquiry — am I making an assumption here? — and an openness to and curiosity about other realities and belief systems.

Have you been on the receiving end of the false consensus effect? And when have you been the one making the assumption that your reality was The Reality. As with any behavior change, noticing the behavior without judgment is critical.

Wishing you good ki on the journey!

PS — There is a lot more on the false consensus effect and other communication tools in my most recent book, Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace, on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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