Assume Less, Ask More

When things go wrong and conflict ensues, the fastest and most effective solution is often to identify and let go of any false assumptions.

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The brain non-consciously predicts what is most likely to happen and sets in motion perceptions, emotions, behaviors and interpersonal responses best adapted to what is expected-before events occur. In a sense, we learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect.
– Regina Pally, neuroscientist


On any given day, we likely make a series of predictions and assumptions. When walking down stairs, we trust that the next steps will be there. When driving a car, we make hundreds of assumptions about the functioning of our car and the behavior of other drivers. To function in everyday life, we are required to make assumptions about the causes of events and what will happen next. But predictions and assumptions are often wrong.
 
For instance, many years ago when I was a young Zen student living at Green Gulch Farm in California, a problem arose among the residents: a sliding wooden door at the entrance of the student living area was regularly being left open. As a result, cold Pacific Ocean winds would sweep in and chill our shared living space. Announcements were made at least a half dozen times at community work meetings reminding people to keep this door shut. But it was continually found open, and over time this became a remarkably divisive issue. People grew emotional, blaming and pointing fingers. In the midst of one tense meeting, Sierra, the farm’s pet golden retriever, opened the door from the outside and joined the group. Of course, Sierra didn’t close the door behind her. Everyone laughed. No one knew that Sierra had the dexterity to open a sliding wooden door. The group’s false assumptions had nearly led to an all-out battle.
 
Admittedly, this story has a comical ending. It’s a rare case when we can actually blame the dog for our incomplete homework or anything else. But the story does point to a lesson about assumptions: When things go wrong and conflict ensues, the fastest and most effective solution is often to identify and let go of any false assumptions.


 3 WAYS TO LET GO OF FALSE ASSUMPTIONS

  1. Ask for feedback

    Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we ask our loved ones, “Please tell me. How can I love you better?” Try asking this of your partner, children, or parents, and then listen to what they say. At work, try asking people you trust, “How can I be a better team member?” or “How can I be more effective?” Soliciting feedback—and then paying careful attention to it—is a good way to reduce assumptions.

  2. Distinguish motivation from impact

    Notice how often you assume what someone else’s motivations are. Much of the time we don’t even know our own motivations, so it can be very difficult to know the motivations of others. But we can be aware of the impact that their actions have within us. Knowing your feelings and emotions and distinguishing these from others’ motivations is an important step in reducing assumptions. Experiment with being more curious, especially when you feel hurt, overwhelmed or emotionally triggered in small or large ways.

  3. Make requests and offers

    Experiment with making clear requests of others. Try beginning sentences with “I request that…” or “Would you please…?” Also make clear offers, such as “Can I help you with…?” By making requests and offers, we increase clarity and connection, while reducing inaccurate assumptions.

Making less assumptions, by employing these practices, can support you to find a greater sense of ease and alignment with yourself, your vision, and the people you work with and live with.

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