#1 Question for Exposing Assumptions

man sitting at desk thinking

Like everyone, I have a healthy dose of imperfections. Some of them, I’ve learned to live with and found ways to compensate. For example, I’m quite physically awkward, uncoordinated. (If my friend Sean is reading this,  he’ll be laughing. He witnessed the month(?) it took me to figure out how to serve properly when playing squash.) I tend to stay away from highly challenging physical activities, not only to keep myself safe but also to avoid a lot of embarrassment.

But there’s a communication imperfection I’ve struggled to figure out how to mitigate. It has created numerous problems for me throughout my life. While it has less impact as I grow older, I’ve still continued searching for a better way to live with it … and I think I’ve found it.

What is this imperfection?  Is it one you have as well? And might this solution work for you?

It’s assumptions; I have travelled through my life making a lot of big assumptions. It’s a difficult character flaw to pin down because I’m also endlessly curious. But once I’ve assumed something, it’s almost impossible for me to consider other possibilities.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘assumption’ as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof”. When I make assumptions, I decide that something is true before I know it is true. And I don’t take the time, or I haven’t developed the skills, to distinguish between my decision and reality.

So I’ve been looking for a way to interrupt my thought process. If I could recognize – in the moment – that I am making a decision without having all the facts, then I might be able to start reducing my assumptions. And I think I’ve found it.

It’s one simple question, shared by a physician in a radio interview: “What else could this be?” 

While it’s obvious how this question fits in the world of medical diagnoses, it actually applies in every area of life. When a family member or friend is upset, we often assume we know why. Yet, if we ask ourselves this question, we might discover that our empathy is short-sighted and we need to listen more, pay more attention.

Clients often approach us with problems or challenges that are similar to previous projects we’ve done. Sometimes we start suggesting solutions too quickly, thinking this is the best way to prove our expertise, but this is the perfect place for assumptions to thrive.

When I take a breath and say to myself “What else could this be?”, a wealth of questions appear in my mind. My curiosity is ignited and takes over with energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes, my initial assumption is correct but sometimes I discover opportunities and options that surprise and delight everyone involved.

What do you think? How do you guard against making assumptions? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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12 thoughts on “#1 Question for Exposing Assumptions”

  1. This is fabulous! Heuristic at its best. A short cut with roots in preconceived notions and even biases. It takes effort to critically think through situations for the optimal solution for the party in need or most affected. (Which isn’t necessarily us)
    Effort =time=money
    And time is a good investment with relations.
    A great way to start is with this outlook: “that’s fascinating, tell me more” (from one of Beth Wonson’s tools in her Navigating Challenging Dialogue courses.)
    When we approach with curiosity instead of a mindset of tried and true solutions, we are more likely to avoid assumptions.
    Thank you for inspiring conversations MJ

    • Thank you Sarah for this feedback, tips and the introduction to Beth Wonson. “Tell me more” is a phrase that we should all use more often.

  2. MJ:
    Your observation is a timely and important one in this time of extreme partisan views on many topics…and not all political ones. Assumptions unfortunately escalate to biases and the trap of ‘bias confirmation’ …where we reject any information or opinion that contradicts our assumption.
    The other careless half-sibling of the assumption is the assumptive question, which assumes an answer rather than asking one; a practice lauded by sales trainers (would you like the red or the blue one?) …but often misused by lawyers or journalists (how often do you go shoplifting?)
    Any thoughts on responding to the ‘vexed’ question?

    • Thanks for your comment, Colin. I love the phrase “careless half-sibling and am not a big fan of the assumptive question … unless it is of tremendous help to the prospect or customer. I had to look up a definition of the “vexed” question. I’ll have to give it some thought. It is not something I encounter very often at home or at work.

  3. This is very timely advice. I know I make assumptions both about when and who to call and even more importantly about how to turn my assumptions into curiosity. I will keep a card on my desk saying “What else could this be?” and “Tell me more.” And I will make sure I look at that card before every phone call.

    • Thanks for your comment, Eileen. So pleased to know that you have found this information useful. I’ll be thinking about your index card near your phone. It makes me smile.

  4. I think one way to avoid making assumptions is to not go to any conclusion unless you actually see something or someone tells you something. If not, then you have to conclude that you don’t know, and typically the way to find out is to ask questions.

    Maybe the missing link is the part about asking a question. There, you are taking a risk, because it could lead to conflict, or it could give you an answer you are not prepared to tackle.

    For example, an employee calls and says, “I can’t come into work today.” You could assume he or she is sick, but if you don’t ask, you won’t know. “Oh? Are you not feeling well?” might bring a surprising response. “Well, no not me, but my spouse is, and needs the car to go to the doctor.” Suddenly that’s a whole new ballgame, because are you prepared to give sick days to one-car families for spousal illness?

    I think cultivating a natural curiosity (not quite nosey, but on the way there) might be part of the answer, and having the nerve to ask questions if it’s important enough.

    Something to think about.

    • Love this comment and your example, Pat. Cultivating a “natural curiosity” is exactly what is needed to avoid assumptions … and create deeper relationships. Our ability to serve is directly connected to our desire to understand. Thanks!

  5. I love your question ‘what else could it be?’

    In my conflict coaching and mediation work exploring assumptions is an important step in reducing anger and judgement, and rebuilding empathy.
    I’m always delighted at the shift in the tension – the reduction in the distancing between people, which opens the door to new levels of understanding.

    • Thank you, Delphine. You create a lovely minds-eye picture of the shift that can take place when we explore our assumptions.

  6. Love this Mary Jane. I just wrote that question on my board to remind myself to continue to ask the question. Thank you.


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