You probably think I enjoy listening…I don’t.
(Cue chirping crickets.)
You might also think I’m empathetic, caring, compassionate, a people person, and any other adjectives typically scripted to counselors. People have lots of assumptions about my professional persona. I hear them all the time in meet and greets. “You must really love people.” “I bet you’re a great listener.” “People probably hate how you can read their minds.” “You must psychoanalyze your husband all the time.” The last one is definitely true…you mutter, under your breath.
Assumptions are those things we believe to be true without proof. Synonyms are presuppositions, conjectures, presumptions, guesses. Assumptions are insidious. They’re subtle, pervasive, and destructive. No sooner do we open our eyes in the morning then we’re making a multitude of assumptions. Our default mode is to embrace a set of beliefs based on a generalized and often inaccurate knowledge base. A knowledge spearheaded by our projections.
Have you ever given the “perfect” Christmas gift to a recipient who ended up angry or disappointed? This happens because of the belief that we understand our loved ones’ likes and dislikes; a belief based on projection–in this case, a bad one. Projection is our distorted view of another’s thoughts, feelings, and desires as shadowy versions of our own. This isn’t based on who they are but who we are. Any follow up interactions reflect these distortions; fertile ground for our assumptions to germinate and grow.
Assumptions are reflexive, as if our brains are met with the doctor’s mallet, bi-focals perched on his nose and tapping rigorously until we jump. We predict what our co-workers are going to say so we cut them off, mid-sentence, and respond reflexively. Then we regret.
The problem with assumptions is they have a shelf life. They spoil quickly and reek of projection. They turn our relationships sour.
That souring begins with communication. How often have you ended up in a fight with your spouse that lasted for hours only to realize you weren’t even talking about the same thing? Most communication breakdowns involve thousands of false assumptions.
Because of these communication faux pas, assumptions are insidious internally and inter-personally. When we presume we project instead of listening. This leads to a reductionism that is cruelly felt by the other. Our assumptions whittle others down into a set of beliefs based on our own biased experiences and unfounded in their characters.
Rather than sentencing our loved ones to live shadowy versions of our own lives, here are a few guidelines to consider about assumptions. First, know your filters. Learn more about your own projections. You can do this by asking family and friends (if you’re brave). Notice your strong, emotional reactions. If you believe others are interpreting the world in the exact same way that you are, that’s an assumption based on a projection.
Second, go back to the basics. Let’s say you have a childhood friend with whom you’ve rendezvoused at the same restaurant for the last twenty years. Now, let’s say your friend tends to be less assertive than you. What if your friend doesn’t even like the restaurant but has never told you? Maybe those beliefs and affinities you’ve associated with a friend or family member are all wrong. Try going to your loved ones and asking them. You’ll likely be surprised by the feedback.
This leads to the third point. When it comes to assumptions, question everything. As soon as you notice an assumption emerge in real time test your hypothesis rather than viewing it as truth. You can do this by collecting multiple data points. Examples would be asking directly, noticing the person’s habits to see if your assumption fits with those habits, paying attention to body language, and noticing how quickly a conversation goes south. As we established, poor communication is riddled with assumptions.
Finally, hold your assumptions loosely. Accept the fact that they’re unavoidable. We can’t escape forming hypotheses about others, but we can decide whether to embrace them or challenge them. They are only hypotheses, and we would do well to incorporate twice the data points than usual to confirm their accuracy. In other words, turn the assumptions on yourself and assume you’re wrong about them until proven right by the data.
As you learn to challenge your assumptions, see what happens to your communication skills. Do your wife, mother, and son feel better understood? Are your conversations more seamless?
So why am I a counselor if I don’t like listening? I’m sure in the span of time it took you to read this post you’ve developed a subconscious set of assumptions to explain it. Consider those assumptions consciously for a moment.
Think you’re right?