“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
How crazy for the other person to play certain things in their head and not realize it isn’t for real! Crazy right? Except, well, we do it all the time.
Have you ever assumed certain things about someone and acted upon those assumptions without reflecting on whether those assumptions were true or not?
Have you mindlessly claimed to have understood instructions given to you only later to be ashamed of asking again?
These situations pan out all the time in our lives. As human beings, we like making up stories. And stories are great! Except when we construct these stories in our head without examining their validity.
One of the four agreements outlined in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements is ‘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.” he says. It is a simple message that delivers common sense. But common sense isn’t common practice. That is why we end up in bitter situations at home and work just from having assumed things. Our partner didn’t greet us at the breakfast table. She must be seething from some innocuous comment we might have made last night. The client didn’t pick up the phone. He must have scoffed at our start-ups’ audacity to charge premium. And the list goes on.
Assumptions close doors. They don’t leave room for other stories apart from the one we have constructed. Our partner must be tired of being with us. Our client must be considering another service provider. There’s no other explanation. But are these truths? We don’t know. We can’t confirm unless we ask.
Sounds simple but asking questions isn’t that straightforward. Why else would it be people’s default mode? But given the amount of time and mental energy we save simply by asking instead of assuming, we have to build better habits that challenge our default position. One really effective way I’ve been practicing is voluntarily stepping up to summarize conversations when they come to an end. Whether it is a personal or professional setting, instead of just ending the conversation, I make sure I have clearly understood their needs, hopes, and concerns. I end the conversation if they are happy with my summary and I’m happy with theirs. If not, I ask them to clarify whatever it is that I need to understand better. This may take another 5-10 minutes, but surely that’s better than the repercussions that come with misunderstanding the message.
With the advent of technology, maybe someday all of us will have mind-reading devices to help us communicate better. Until that day arrives though, we will need to rely on assuming less and asking more.