We make assumptions every day. They help us move throughout our day with a degree of certainty. We assume supermarkets will have food for us to buy, that the school bus will come to pick up our kids, and that each member of the family will return home safely at the end of the day.
Such assumptions allow us to function effectively without constant stress or anxiety. It would be paralysing if we had to check the validity of every decision before taking action.
But there are times when assumptions are neither accurate nor helpful. This is especially so when it comes to assumptions we make about others.
“Assumption: the act of accepting something as true or certain to happen, without proof.”
To make sense of our reality, we constantly look for meaning in our experiences and interactions. These meanings are derived from our interpretation of those experiences more than the actual experiences themselves.
Unfortunately, such interpretations are frequently inaccurate. It becomes worse when there are gaps in our knowledge and we make up the ‘missing’ information.
Some years back I read a story that illustrates this point. From memory the story goes something like this:
A traveling salesman finds himself stuck on a lonely country road with a flat tyre and no jack. He starts walking toward a service station he knows is just a few kilometres ahead, and as he walks, he talks to himself.
“How much can they charge me for renting a jack?” he thinks. “One dollar, maybe two. But it’s late so maybe there’s an after-hours fee. Probably another five dollars.”
He walks on then groans. “If he’s anything like my brother-in-law, he’ll realise I got no place else to go for the jack, so he’s cornered the market and has me at his mercy. He’s bound to charge me ten dollars more.”
He goes on walking and thinking, and both the price and his anger keep rising.
Finally, he gets to the service station and is greeted cheerfully by the owner: “What can I do for you, sir?”
By this time the salesman is so worked up he doesn’t even let they man finish. “You’ve got a nerve to talk to me, you robber,” he says. “You can take your stinkin’ jack and . . .”
Unfortunately, I’ve been down that road with ‘a flat tyre and no jack’ on many occasions. Making assumptions, creating scenarios from them, working myself into a state, and behaving accordingly – except that it wasn’t in accordance with what was really happening in the moment.
I’ve discovered that whenever I start to make up stories and build ‘cases’ against others, I’m really being triggered by something unresolved in myself. Some part of me that I don’t want to look at and change, is being mirrored to me in another.
Assumptions stop us from seeing things as they really are. They also close us down to opportunities and possibilities. We move from our smart brain, the prefrontal cortex where rational thinking, imagination and creative innovation occur. We focus on our own feelings and seek to justify them with protective and defensive behaviours.
- If you catch yourself making assumptions about others, can you step back and think about what part of the story you might have made up?
- Is what you’re thinking really true?
- Can you put your feelings aside and review what you do know?
Perhaps the hardest part is our need to know everyone’s business. If you don’t have all the information you need for something to make sense to you, and you are not required to know, can you allow yourself to just not know?