How to communicate better by avoiding assumptions

Bad communication is the bane of my existence. Most people don’t take the time to improve their communication skills, and this impacts everything we do. There are so many ways that people fail to communicate, and one of the most common is making assumptions.

This idiom is often attributed to TV writer Jerry Belson.

We’ve all done it. You’re in a group presentation and you assume that someone will remember to bring the poster board. Your apartment runs out of toilet paper and you assume that your roommate will restock it. You might be on a date and you assume that you’re expected to pay for the meal.

Assumptions are communication shortcuts. We don’t want to take the time to get the full picture of a situation, or we’re not equipped with the necessary communication tools to do so. So we stray off the beaten path because it looks like it will get us to our destination sooner, when in reality we get lost with a punctured tire.

Assumptions stem from a few different sources. Laziness, anxiety, and bias are a few common ones.

Laziness

Communication takes effort. Many people don’t like to expend any more effort than necessary in any given situation, though. People are often just going through the motions during communication and don’t consciously consider what important information they don’t know.

There are also times where we don’t allow ourselves to take the time to communicate. American culture encourages us to constantly rush to increase productivity. If we’re racing around all day trying to keep up with whatever it is we’re pursuing then we might not be able to slow down and really think about our communication.

That may not sound like laziness because we’re rushing to get our work done, but it’s specifically laziness in communication. Work takes precedence over everything else and communication becomes an afterthought. Even though communication plays a huge role in a successful work life, people often don’t consider its importance.

Anxiety

I’m much more anxious than a lot of people realize. I worry about what someone will think when I ask clarifying questions or push to get the full information about a situation. You’d think that after studying journalism for three and a half years I’d be comfortable with asking questions, but I still find myself overcome with anxiety and making assumptions to relieve my inner tension.

I’ve made a lot of assumptions in the past as a sort of defense mechanism about my anxiety. My brain starts racing and I generate the assumption that someone else will handle a situation to assuage my irrational fears.

Anxiety can make communication challenging. This is a hard one to address, because anxiety infiltrates every single aspect of your life. In a sense, anything that helps manage anxiety can help you improve the way you communicate. Unfortunately, many people experiencing anxiety have a hard time doing developing viable coping mechanisms that work.

Bias

We learn a lot from school and society that leads us to be biased towards certain people, places and ideas. Biases lead us to believe we understand something when we may be working with a distorted or incomplete picture.

As Alice Vitiello, Ph.D. points out in her article about academic ideologies, the frameworks through which we view the world will often vary greatly depending on where we got our education. Depending on your worldview, you might be in conversation with someone using the same words to convey entirely different meanings and concepts. It might seem like you’re on the same page, but if you don;t take the time to confirm that the two of you mean the same thing you’ll have failed to communicate without realizing it.

It’s similar to times when you hear two people arguing and you realize halfway through that they actually agree, but they’re using different words to say the same thing. They’ve assumed that they disagree and so they’re moving forward under that assumption into unnecessary conflict.

It can take extra time and effort to clarify what exactly people mean when they use words. The extra clarity and understanding you gain is completely worth it, though.

How assumptions lead to problems

This is your brain on assumptions.

Let’s go through the examples from before. In a group presentation, if everyone assumes that someone else will bring the poster board, you’ll show up to the presentation unprepared and fail the class. If you go on a date and assume the other person is going to foot the bill, it might be awkward later. If you assume your roommates are gonna get the toilet paper, then you have to suffer that moment of panic and improvise an alternative.

It can even go a step further. You could assume that all white people are racist, or that all black people are criminals. Assumptions on this level will distort your interactions with the world and have a drastic negative impact on your life.

Most often, however, assumptions simply lead to misunderstandings and unproductive conversations.

The trickiest thing about assumptions, though, is that sometimes they will be confirmed by our experience. In dating situations, you might meet someone whose preconceived notions align with yours. A man might assume that it’s his duty to pick up the check and his date might feel the same way. Both individuals in this situation have had their assumptions confirmed and they will continue to act on them in the future.

Worse yet, if you assume that all black people are criminals, for example, you might have this bias confirmed by a news report or a rap song in which the artist brags about their past criminal activity. It would be perfectly easy for people to rest on these assumptions and avoid any relationships with blak people based on them.

Conversely, you might assume that all white people are racist and have this confirmed by recent events such as Charlottesville and the 2016 election. There are people of color who avoid contact with whites based on the assumption that their interactions will be tainted by racism.

Most assumptions are not this bad. Usually they happen between coworkers or friends and only lead to minor mishaps. In everyday situations there are easy steps we can take to avoid making assumptions.

How to avoid assumptions

It’s hard to break the habit of assumptions. Many of them are based on well-established worldviews and knowledge.

There are three ways I’ve tried to reduce my assumptions and improve My communication:

  1. Shut up and listen
  2. Ask a lot of questions
  3. Slow down

Most of the time you can do all three at once.

Shut up and listen

In his book, The Art of Communicating, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the importance of listening. It’s through listening that we truly understand each other and build empathy. But it’s important to listen mindfully and not simply wait for your turn to speak.

Take a second when someone is explaining their point of view to really listen and consider where they’re coming from. It’s perfectly easy to tune out and assume you know where they’re coming from, but if you make an effort to listen constructively you will build a bridge of communication and everything will be better.

I’ve run into trouble before because I assume I know what someone is asking me to do and I move forward under that assumption. I might be in a rush to complete all of my homework and I do the assignment wrong because I didn’t slow down and read the directions. That’s why now I always take time to sit down with professors and ensure I understand what they’re asking me for. It’s worth five or ten extra minutes to avoid an assumption that will come back to bite you later on.

Ask a lot of questions

This one’s for the anxious people out there. It’s hard, but if you don’t feel like you fully understand someone you have to ask clarifying questions. Thich Nhat Hanh said that the best question you can ask is, “Am I understanding you enough?” You don’t have to use those exact words. Simply repeat back what someone has told you and ask some variation of that question and you’ll clear up a lot of assumptions about what people say and mean.

Clarifying questions also often help you learn information that can help you and would have otherwise remained hidden. You’ll be surprised at the things you find out.

This is a great way to accomplish the next goal, slowing down. Asking questions can slow down the pace of a conversation while still getting you closer to your communication goal. It also shows people you’re truly interested in hearing what they have to say. You’ll have better communication and better relationships with people if you ask the right clarifying questions.

This one is especially important if you’re working with clients, particularly in creative roles. Imagine a graphic designer spent five minutes with a client, and then they both just assumed they understood each other. The designer might show up with an entirely inadequate solution and then everyone will be unhappy. Asking more questions would’ve solved the problem.

Slow down

We’re always rushing. That’s the part of American Culture that bugs me the most. The obsession with constant work and productivity prevents us from being mindful in our communication.

Take a deep breath and listen. You can spare an extra minute or two to make sure you understand where someone is coming from. This one takes a lot of practice due to the fast-paced nature of the Western world.

Slowing down and making sure I get the most out of my communications has made a tremendous difference in my life. You won’t improve anything by shaving a few seconds off your conversation time. There are circumstances where you need to rush a conversation, but 90% of the time you can spare an extra minute to communicate better.

In the client-designer example from before, both individuals should have slowed down to ensure they had enough time to communicate. The client needed to articulate the idea better and the designer needed to take more time to listen. It’s a busy world, but if you don’t slow down and avoid assumptions, you’ll be busy fixing all of your mistakes.

Every speech bubble is a clarifying question being asked.

Communication is difficult even under the best circumstances, and hopefully these tools can help you avoid assumptions. If you begin to practice these right now, then soon enough they’ll become second nature to you. Improve your communication and you’ll improve your whole life.


What are some common communication problems that you experience in your daily lives? How do you try to address those issues? Let us know in the comments. Or just clap a few times if you enjoyed this post.

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Have an awesome day.

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