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The Trouble with Assumptions, and How to Keep Yours in Check

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”  Isaac Asimov

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I can only assume they’re going to do A…
  • For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume B…
  • I’m assuming they’ll have access to this information through D, E, and F channels.

Assumptions are baked into so much of what we do, and so many of the decisions that we make. We don’t always know the full story or the exact facts, and so we make assumptions to fill the gaps. They help us make sense of complex information, and can serve as an important guide so we know what questions we can ask.

But assumptions can be just as harmful as they are helpful. When we fall into the trap of not challenging our assumptions and instead begin accepting them at face value, or when we fail to recognize them at all, much bigger problems can set in.

The proven way to combat assumptions? Ask more questions.

Yesterday, we hosted our first of several Design Thinking days at Mission Partners. We convened a small group of curious people who each agreed to look closely at their current communications practices for where the traps of assumption lie. Within the first 30 minutes, it became clear that even when we believe we’re being open to information (myself included), we might not always be getting enough of the right information to make an informed decision.

Consider this: How many of the first impressions you make today will be based on false assumptions?

Think about this the next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or riding the Metro, or in your next team assignment at work. What assumptions are you making about the people you see, or about certain policies or practices as you move through your day? Take time to recognize your assumptions as you’re making them, and then consider how those assumptions might be wrong, ill-informed, or worth examining further.

For years, research showed that someone had 7 seconds to make a first impression. That’s not much time at all. But, it’s a lifetime compared to newer data which showed the actual time it takes for someone to judge another person’s character is .01 seconds. Milliseconds. So-fast-you-don’t-even-know-it-happened seconds.  And once that very initial assumption is set, it’s hard to break it. So, it’s even more important that we not only recognize when we’re making assumptions, but we understand how to be intentional about listening, learning, and understanding one another in order to differentiate false assumptions vs. reality.

Here are three more ways you can challenge your assumptions, and help to keep them in check:

  1. How well do you really listen? As in, listening without simultaneously forming a response in your mind. In yesterday’s session, we performed an exercise in radical listening. For 60 seconds, participants were instructed to just look at their partner. Learn one another’s faces. Stay connected to one another’s eyes. Then, we repeated the exercise, but gave each person 60 seconds to talk to their partner. And something interesting happened: the room softened, the relationships deepened, and people began seeing each other in new ways, picking up on little details they hadn’t noticed before. Assumptions we had made about one another in those first few seconds of meeting melted away.
  1. If you’re the curator of content for your organization, where are you sourcing your news? The easy assumption is that the sources we’re pulling from give us a well-rounded picture of the situation. But, what stories could we be missing? Are your sources the same sources week after week, or do you challenge yourself to go beyond the traditional news set? How often are you reaching out into your community to request news for future editions? How often are you exploring the news within the outer rings of your audience set—beyond your primary audience and into your secondary and tertiary audience—to see how the conversation and news is different there?
  1. What are the things you mean to know, but just keep assuming that you’ve got it figured out? There was a great episode of This American Life last fall, in which David Kestenbaum spoke with producer Diane Wu about her list of things she “means to know.” It made me think of all the things I mean to know, but never seem to find the time to explore enough to fully understand. So, I started a list too. And while right now the list seems to grow faster than I can check things off, it’s become a great exercise in intentionally learning and breaking my own assumptions.

There’s little we can do about first impressions. Our brains are hardwired to fill gaps of information with assumptions, and that won’t soon change. But, it’s what we do with the seconds, minutes, and hours that follow that make all the difference in this world.

Learn more about our Design Thinking Days, where you can safely explore and challenge your assumptions, and register for our next session at Mission Forward.