You know the saying, right? Don’t assume – it makes an ASS of U and ME. (Well, if you don’t, you do now!)
But have you ever stopped to consider why this saying holds truth? Why it is so relevant to all our relationships and even everyday conversations? And why we do it anyway, to the detriment of healthy communication and heightened understanding?
Here’s the short answer to both.
Assuming requires less energy BUT assuming is a major roadblock to genuinely hearing, understanding, and thereby connecting with others.
Assuming requires less energy
Yep, when we hear a bit of what someone says, we automatically fill in blanks, relate the bits we understand to our own experiences of the world, and jump to conclusions about the meaning and significance the event has for that person. Consider Jenny.
Jenny is telling Alicia about her struggles with getting a uni assignment completed. She says she’s worried about not making the deadline. “Oh I know,” says Alicia, “the topic is really boring and it’s hard to find the motivation. Don’t worry, you always get good marks, just get it knocked over and submitted.” Alicia’s intentions are to make Jenny feel more confident, and to side with her on finding the assignment a chore. Jenny leaves the conversation feeling that Alicia didn’t listen to her and just brushed her off. What went wrong?
Well, Jenny isn’t finding the topic boring or feeling unmotivated. Jenny has a chronically sick child at home and her husband is away on business. She has no family support and is exhausted, and actually feeling isolated and quite down. She usually gets good marks, but can’t even find the time or energy to read the literature. She has already had one extension and can’t get any more time. Her husband won’t return until after the deadline. She’s not even thinking about marks; she’s worried about failing the subject.
A simplistic example, but shows how easy it is to think we’re listening and being supportive, when we’ve assumed information because it is simply quicker to feel we’ve done our bit by contributing to the conversation. We haven’t considered it may offer little to the other person. We’re more invested in how we feel about ourselves, and getting to lunch. Besides, we’re really quite uncomfortable hearing about other people’s struggles – it’s so… negative.
Assuming is a major roadblock to genuinely hearing, understanding, and thereby connecting with others
When we don’t bother to make time or effort to really listen to someone’s unique experience or to ask questions that help us deepen our understanding, we miss the opportunity for genuine connection. Let’s replay Jenny and Alicia, after Alicia’s developed her relationship skills with a professional counsellor.
Jenny: I’m really struggling with this uni assignment.
Alicia: Oh really?
Jenny: Yeah, I actually think I might fail.
Alicia: You normally get such good marks. Something must but really up for you. Wanna talk about it?
Jenny: My little one’s really unwell, hubby’s away on business and I don’t have anyone to help, so I haven’t even started the reading.
Alicia: I don’t have any kids, but that sounds tough. Can you get an extension?
Jenny: I’ve already had one, and I have until the final marking date or I’ll fail the unit.
Alicia: Gosh, it’s pretty serious for you then. Can I help at all?
Jenny: Probably not, but thanks for listening. I’m sure I’ll find a way…
Alicia didn’t fix Jenny’s problem, and much of the time we can’t fix other people’s problems. What she gave was a genuine ear to hear and ask about Jenny’s experience, and an acknowledgement of how hard it must be for Jenny. This took a small amount of Alicia’s time and effort. Although Jenny couldn’t see how Alicia could help, she was touched by her bothering to ask and respond, and she left the conversation feeling cared about. A big impact for Jenny.
Stop making an ass of yourself (and others)
We’ve all been on the receiving end of a lousy conversation. We know when others are giving us trite responses. Being brushed off or dismissed can feel crushing. So stop doing it to others.
You may not have long to chat (lunch is important, after all). You may be under the pump yourself (we all have our own life troubles). You may just not feel bothered (we all get tired at times). Fine. Let others know if you’re not up for listening. But don’t give them a quick “you’ll be right, mate” response and expect them to be grateful for your friendship and wise words.
And if you do have that two minutes to spare, be really present. Put thoughts of that fresh salad wrap and double mocha on hold. Then Hear – Ask – Acknowledge.
You may just transform someone else’s day, or an entire relationship. And you certainly get to feel good about that.