- That you can’t make it to the next level?
- That those above you are naturally more gifted?
- That successful people never fail?
We all make assumptions. When we get stuck, feel inadequate or we have incomplete information, assumptions are our way of trying to problem-solve and make sense of the world.
A highly efficient strategy
It’s also highly efficient, which makes it a very appealing strategy for your brain. Imagine if your brain had to evaluate every single detail and draw fresh conclusions every time. It would expend all it’s energy processing the minutiae of everyday life and have nothing left for reasoning and its other more complex and important functions. So instead of evaluating every situation on its true merits, we use our past experiences to anticipate and prejudge; and we use prior knowledge to fill in the blanks. To assume is human.
Assumptions can be misleading
But the problem with assumptions is that they are often misleading and can also be completely wrong. Emotions can interfere with objectivity. Feelings can cloud judgement and the lessons we’ve learned from past experiences can be outdated, causing us to join dots that shouldn’t be joined, and fill in the blanks with incorrect information. Making assumptions may be easier than looking for new routes of information or considering other possibilities, but the result can backfire.
Other people’s motivations
When it comes to considering other people’s motivations, the bias that can result from making assumptions is particularly problematic. Consider the last time you had a disagreement with your boss, or a client expressed their anger at the unexpected and unwelcome conclusion of a deal. What were your thoughts about the other person? Did you evaluate the facts and acknowledge that it was reasonable for them to be angry and disappointed? Or did you assume their anger was directed at you and launch your strongest defense?
Making assumptions can also be a problem when you have decisions to make. They can stop you from taking positive action and disempower you, keeping you stuck in the past and leading you to repeat behaviour that has been holding you back all along. In a coaching session with a client recently, assumptions were running riot. There were assumptions about what would happen in the future; assumptions about what others were thinking; and – most limiting of all and something I see all the time – assumptions about her own ability which led her to repeatedly shy away from opportunities.
The next time you feel stuck, that your life is not moving forward or that you are not getting the results you want, ask yourself:
What am I assuming?
Examine your thinking
Examine your thinking. What conclusions am I drawing? What evidence do I have? Which past experience am I drawing on? What if the opposite were true?
Being overlooked for promotion at work could easily lead to the assumption that your boss thinks you’re no good and your firm doesn’t value you. But how do you really know? You weren’t party to all stages of the evaluation process; you don’t have access to other people’s thought processes – so instead you make an assumption based on your own feelings of hurt and rejection and draw a potentially harmful conclusion.
Is it serving you?
Once you become aware of your tendency to make assumptions, the next question to consider is: Is this assumption serving me? Is it helpful or is it holding me back? In the scenario where you’re overlooked for promotion, the assumption you make could prevent you from getting the feedback you need to build a better case for promotion next time.
Assumptions in your relationships
Let’s consider your personal relationships. How often do you find yourself making assumptions about the motivations of those closest to you? Perhaps your partner is being quiet and uncommunicative. Do you assume they are angry with you or that you’ve done something to upset them? If a close friend cancels meeting up with you for the second time, do you assume that they don’t value your friendship? When your child gets into trouble at school, do you assume it was their fault? Be alert to the assumptions you are making about the people you know and love. It can create distance in your relationships and limit your ability to resolve conflict.
Go back to the facts
So what to do? I’ve talked about becoming more aware of the assumptions you are making and starting to question them. The next step is to go back to the facts – the pure circumstances of the situation. This means stripping out all the opinion and conjecture and removing all judgement. Your objective here is to arrive at a position where you are as neutral as possible. So instead of “I’ve been overlooked for promotion, they obviously don’t value me”, the facts are “I didn’t make partner this year”. Instead of “my husband is so selfish I can’t believe he went to the football when my parents were arriving” the facts are “my husband went to the football.” When you go back to the facts, it creates the opportunity to think clearly, see a different point of view and uncover a course of action that is more likely to get you the result you’re actually looking for: a roadmap to ensure your bid for promotion is successful next time round; a loving relationship with your husband.
To assume is human. But assumptions can throw you off track or keep you stuck. Watch your thinking, go back to the facts and develop the skill of seeing things from a viewpoint that is different to your own.
Tune into Episode #54 of the Babyproof Your Career podcast to discover more on assumptions. I can also help you challenge your negative assumptions in my Having it all coaching programme, so contact me firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more information.