A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a guy who had a large scar on his neck that looked like a swastika. The man had it partially covered with a turtleneck on a hot day. I could have easily assumed that he was a “scary” member of a fringe group, but I was sitting next to him and said hello anyway. The man seemed thrilled that someone was speaking to him, and soon I found out that he had actually been branded while serving a prison term for a car accident he had been in when he was nineteen. He was having a great deal of difficulty saving up the money to get the scar fixed. Rather than hating the man, I wound up having a lot of sympathy for his situation. He made one stupid move as a teenager and is now suffering for life because of it.
That incident has left me thinking a great deal about all of the things I assume in my own life. So often, I make assumptions about others, usually out of a need to make faster decisions. Sometimes, those assumptions are flat-out wrong, and those assumptions cost me in a lot of ways. They cost me money. They cost me time. They cost me pride and self-confidence, too. They cost me respect as well.
I’ll make assumptions about reader emails because I have 250 of them to read and only a couple of hours in which to do it (do the math there). I’ll make assumptions about what the real intent of people marketing their product to me actually is – are they shills? Do they actually have a product that’s worthwhile that they genuinely believe in? I make assumptions when I write – I assume often that the audience already knows certain things and to reiterate them would just be a waste.
Each of these assumptions seem like a good idea on the surface. However, if I make the wrong assumption, I pay for it. I lose readers. I lose respect. I lose opportunities. I lose time. I lose motivation.
Yet, without at least some assumptions, I would be utterly stuck in analysis paralysis. I would not be able to move forward with any speed with anything in my life.
You likely make assumptions in your own life as well. We all do it. Most of the time, assumptions are time-savers that enable us to deal with a lot more of our lives. We assume that certain stores have lower prices. We assume that the people in the cars around us will make sensible traffic moves. We assume that the scary person on the bus is actually pretty scary and should be avoided. We look at people, decide who they are quickly, and make snap decisions on whether to avoid them. We pull one sentence out of someone’s long speech or document and assume that one sentence defines everything.
All of these assumptions are mistakes that can cost us money and time and energy. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I can improve my own issues with assumptions, and here are some of the things I’ve come up with.
Don’t react with emotion. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, rather than just reacting with pure emotion, ask yourself why you’re reacting that way. Did you see what you thought you saw? Is that really the whole picture? Look again and quell your initial emotional response.
Restate what you think the case is. If you’re going to disagree, state why you’re disagreeing with someone. Often, you’ll find that you’ve misunderstood what you’re disagreeing with, either due to poor communication skills on the other side’s part or due to poor listening skills on your own part.
Strive to be very clear with your own words. Try to eliminate any vagueness from your own statements. The more clear you are with what you’re trying to say or represent, the more clear it will be for the people who are listening to you.
Listen instead of merely waiting for an opportunity to respond. When you hear something you don’t like, it’s very easy to shut your ears or eyes and just look for an opportunity to respond without hearing the whole statement. When you see an aspect of a person you don’t like, it’s easier to run away or practice avoidance than it is to see the whole picture. You’re better off getting the full picture before responding.
If someone makes a statement that doesn’t seem to fit, ask for clarification. Often, it’s just a mis-statement or a misunderstanding. This is especially true if the person you’re talking to has a long history of sensible and positive remarks.
Listen to clarifications and accept them. Again, many a misstatement and assumption have damaged relationships, jobs, and countless other things without need. When someone tries to clarify their statement, let them clarify and accept their clarification.
Realize that no one is perfect. I’m not. You’re not. No one else is. Everyone makes misstatements and everyone makes false assumptions. Look for times when other people do this and let it go. Forgive them for it.
Realize that you don’t have to do everything and that slower is often better. Yes, quite often in modern life, it’s impossible to slow down and take more time with assumptions. However, the more time you put into the important things, the more benefit you’ll get out of it every time. You’ll see the assumptions more clearly and find the right way to work through them. Everyone benefits from that – especially you.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my own life based on assuming too much or assuming incorrectly. All I can do about it is strive to do better in the future. I hope you’ll join me in that.