Assumptions. We have all heard the saying “Assume – makes an ass out of you and me”. While I am not entirely sold on the language, I don’t mind the premise.
Whenever I working with a leader or team on a sticky situation or a topic they are struggling to address I can bet my last dollar that one of the biggest things tripping people up is the assumptions they are making.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Assumptions are important. They are life’s shorthand. We all make assumptions every day based on our knowledge and experience. I assume my alarm clock will go off on time, because it most always does. I assume my drive to work will take about 25 – 35 minutes, because it usually does. I assume I will fun at work because I usually do. We use the patterns of our lives to help us predict, and thus plan for, what comes next. Hugely helpful. Most of the time.
And then we come to situations where we are having difficulty working with someone else or getting someone to behave in a way that we think is effective. And I generally find that faulty assumptions are contributing to the issue.
We go into situations with a mindset: “Because when I have experienced this situation before – this was the reason the person was doing it, so that must be the reason in this case too”. Not necessarily. “Because the last time this person behaved like this , this was why so that must be the issue this time too”. Not necessarily. The patterns that we use to help us determine a plan don’t always work so well with people, so we have to have a different approach.
So how should we plan for those difficult conversations?
First, start recognizing you make assumptions.
Everyone does. When you find yourself in a difficult conversation or an interaction that causes your blood pressure to rise, ask yourself why. What is it about this situation is triggering your emotion? What was your thought process about the situation? Often we assume that the person is in some way acting deliberately ‘against’ us. And yet, most of the time that is not at all the case. But until you recognize you are making assumptions and what they are, its hard to address them.
A good question to ask yourself is :What assumptions are you making about why that person is behaving that way?
Second, start thinking about intention and impact.
Our intention is what we hoped would happen as a result of our actions. Our impact is what actually did happen. Unfortunately, its quite common that the two aren’t the same! The challenge is that we judge ourselves on our intention ( “well, i didnt mean it that way” , “clearly you misunderstood because thats not what I wanted”), but we judge other people on their impact (“he did that on purpose”, “I think she must try to upset people”). All of us experience gaps between intent and impact, and the more that we simply explore that gap without making assumptions about why it happened, the easier it is to address issues that arise.
A good question to ask yourself is: What might the good intention be that is driving this behaviour?” By thinking about good reasons someone might have done what they did, we tend to reduce our frustration level and can go into the conversation more open minded and willing to listen.
Third, notice and name and leave the assumption out of it.
Now you know you made assumptions and that maybe their intention was different from the impact, you can simply address the impact. This often gets referred to as ‘noticing and naming’ : ” I noticed in the meeting yesterday that you cut me off a few times. I was wondering what prompted that? ” By observing the behaviour and asking about the intention you can avoid judging the person and colouring the conversation with any negative emotions.
A structure that can help is : “ I noticed + observation. What prompted that?”
Lastly, address the intention-impact gap.
Once you know what the intention actually was (because they told you, not because you assumed you knew) then you can explain the impact, why it is an issue for you and how you can approach the situation again in future to have alignment between the intention and impact: “I understand now that your intent with interrupting me was to save time and ensure the meeting was productive. I want it to be productive too. When you interrupt me though, it tends to make me shut down and then the meeting is less productive because I don’t share what I know. Can we find another way for you to flag if you think time is an issue?”
A structure that can help is: “I understand that was your intention… + validation. The impact for me was .. + sharing what happened for you. Can we talk about a different approach if that happens again?’
It can take a bit of practice to recognize when you are listening to an assumption rather than what you really know. Basically, if the person hasn’t told you why, you don’t KNOW why. So its an assumption. We don’t need to check our assumptions all the time, but if you’re in a difficult situation it pays to consider your assumptions and check them at the door.