Assumptions are stifling

At lunch today my wife told us a brief story that our neighbours are moving house. My son, who works in the same company as the neighbour, confirmed that being talked about in the company. My wife continued with the reason why the neighbours, who are our friends, waited so long telling us. My son was of a different opinion, “I don’t believe that.” he said.

Now isn’t that interesting if you look at this conversation carefully. There are quite a few assumptions

First, my son and I think the story is about the neighbour is moving

Second, we believe the reason for not telling us earlier is my wife’s assumptions

Third, my son’s different idea of that reason


We could have gone into quite a debate about it at the time, but we didn’t and started asking question. And this is the core thing to do when dealing with assumptions.

Verify your assumptions against the information you have on the problem.

Look at the well known image above. What do you see? Most people can see a white triangle that overlays three black circles and a black triangle. And how do we do this? There is not really a white triangle, but 6 black shapes that suggest so. Our brain fills in the gaps based on our knowledge and experience. The most likely reason why we can see the white triangle is because it makes sense to our brain. The 6 black shapes for themselves have no particular meaning.

The gap widens

Assumptions are made constantly. It is part of being human. At some stage you trust your gut feeling. At some stage you have 90% of the data confirmed and make a decision. At some stage you test core functionality only before you move on. At some stage you can only say go when there’s no doubt at all.

Assumptions are a tricky business. We may start at the same (or nearly the same) point meaning we have been given the same task and the same information. Based on our experience and knowledge we start on the problem. If we don’t check back or check with each other we will divert more and more from the same path. Look for example at the TV show “Amazing race”. The teams are starting at the same time with the same information. After 4 stops (check back) there are significant differences how well and how fast the teams master the challenge. Without stops and the occasional “how did you do that” most teams won’t make it to the final finish line in a timely manner. (and this is an assumption!)

The trick is to be aware of your assumption and make those clear to everybody else who is involved. In order to do that you should write your assumption down. By doing that you and others can challenge any assumption and so achieve a higher degree of their reliability.

“Don’t Make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

Asking Questions

It is essential in any relationship, in any problem solving task, in a business deal, or simply if you should buy that car or dress to do 3 things:

  • be sure what the desired outcome is
  • write down your assumptions
  • challenge the assumptions by asking questions

The desired outcome can have multiple facets. What do you want? What does your partner want (or any other stakeholder)? Assumptions and facts are closely related. Don’t miss writing down ‘facts’ that are core to the solution or its approach. Sometimes you add those facts because that’s how it’s always been. Although, in this particular instance it isn’t and nobody thought it necessary to point it out. I have been in that trap.

In the Military they have a ritual to repeat the given order. Speaking it with your own words increases the understanding. It also more likely triggers questions. Hence I’ve started a habit to finishing meetings by having action items confirmed by the people who are doing them. I learned to have some minutes spare for arising questions and be prepared for making time for individual clarifications.

How do you deal with assumptions?


One comment on “Assumptions

  1. […] not happening over night and is still first impressions. Expect from now on regular posts […]

What's your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s