Checking assumptions

Assumptions about people’s situation, character or challenges can cause real harm if not true. When we listen to people speak of their own experiences, our default is often to filter them through our own experiences, self-knowledge and perspectives. It is a natural thing to do, one which many of us don’t even realise we’re constantly doing throughout each day. One of the ways of describing this phenomenon is through the analogy of the lenses through which we view the world. These lenses are formed from early on in our childhood, often crafted for us by the significant adults in our early developmental journey. If we don’t begin to question how we see the world we can remain blindly captive to our own perceptions, and never grow to appreciate the diversity of opinion, experience and perspective in others. It is one of the reasons that some dialogues that cross the dividing lines of race, class, sex or religion feel as though they aren’t going anywhere. At worst, they explode in misunderstandings or miscommunications.

The remedy to this is a listening attitude that seeks to see things from the ‘others’ perspective, which we covered in Part 3.1 – Reflective Listening. Yes, Reflective Listening is a tool that can, and should, be used when we listen to those we mentor. This step is vital to double check whether we’re listening as well as we think, and whether any of the information we’ve received is biased, in any way, by our own interpretive lenses. This reflective step we call “checking your assumptions”.

Similar to the reflective listening model, this step requires formulating your assumptions into questions and posing them to the couple/person. Here, questions supersede statements. Questions leave an open space for the person/couple to correct or disagree with your assumption. Statements are closed remarks that can suggest the subject is settled. True, a mature and confident person/couple can disagree with or correct a statement, but what we’re looking for here is best possible method.

The following language can be helpful:

  • “So what I hear you saying is… Is that an accurate description?”
  • “It sounds to me as though you’re dealing with… Am I hearing you correctly?”

If you are correct in your assumption then the person/couple will usually respond positively. There may still be some ground to cover in listening before you move on to step 3, but the more familiar you are with step 2 the more comfortable you will become in discerning when it is time to move on. A good principle can be simply to ask the person/couple whether they would be happy to move on. Possible examples of this could be:

  • Would you be interested in hearing what I think about what you’ve shared?
  • Would you like some suggestions of a tool that might help this situation?
  • Can I lead you through an exercise to see whether we can find some resolution to this?

If you are not correct, don’t be disheartened – just try again. A lot of assumption checking is just a way to narrow down the possibilities of what is actually going on. The process of eliminating non-issues is a way to better focus on what the problem really may be. In this case, ask further questions to clarify what the issue is, and repeat both the listening and assumption checking steps.

A final reminder. Assumptions can be very dangerous when they are not confirmed. We cannot presume to know people better than they know themselves. Although, from an outside perspective, we can pick up on people’s blind spots, this is not the sum total of the individual. We must be careful not to project an air of arrogance in how easily we can know someone after a short period of listening.

Follow this link to continue to the next blog in this series – Part 4.3 – Respond: Partnering for growth