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Unchecked Assumptions Can Screw Up The Works

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

"It's sad that we never get trained to leave assumptions behind." Sebastian Thrun, CEO, entrepreneur, computer scientist

Unchecked assumptions are often the mother of miscommunications, upsetting emotions, and major mishaps- not to mention bad for your health (or, as Steven Seagal said, “Assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups,” or something like that).

Here’s an illustrative scenario you may have heard.

Driving along at a pleasant speed along a windy narrow country road in her open-topped car, a woman enjoyed the breeze playing with her hair. Her engine purred low enough for her to hear birds chirping merrily from their perches in the leaves of the overgrown hedges.

Another driver zoomed along the same country lane in the opposite direction. He was intent on getting to his destination. As they approached each other, the man only just managed to see the woman in time, pushed on his brakes, and slid past her quickly.

She turned to face him and shouted "PIG!"

Immediately, he retorted "COW!"

He accelerated quickly round the corner, and crashed into the pig.


If we were able to see around all the bends of our lives, we might be shocked at how many mistaken negative interpretations we have made particularly about others’ intentions and the meaning of their behavior. If we courageously and objectively examined our misunderstandings, we might also see how our misperceptions have negatively affected many of our outcomes, especially in the relationship arena.

Here’s another scenario. It’s 6:15. Dinner is served at 6:00. No husband, no call. What assumptions do I make? He’s been in accident? He’s had an emergency? He’s an inconsiderate jerk?

It’s hard not to make no assumptions. Human beings are meaning-makers. We don’t see a bunch of stars, we see constellations. We notice certain pieces of data and weave them together in a way that makes sense to us.

We create hypotheses and theories and stories which can be useful if they’ve been checked out. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at checking out our stories (even highly trained scientists have trouble doing this well).

Why don’t we do a better job of checking out our stories? First, because we are pretty sure we’re right, so we don’t even bother. Second, even if we did have some doubt about our interpretation, our human tendency is to look for evidence that confirms our theory; we rarely try to prove ourselves wrong. Third, we’ve been interpreting the world in our own way all our lives, so we often don’t realize what we’ve done until …well, until we run into a pig.

It is worth it to become more skilled at checking out our stories. Misinterpretations can cause us a lot of grief. We can stress ourselves out, waste our time, damage trust, lower our self-confidence, and lose relationships because of inaccurate conclusions.

How can we catch and check our assumptions if they are part of being human and operate almost invisibly?

Here’s what gives negative assumptions away. Emotions. Not the ones we like.

If I’m angry, sad, or fearful because my husband isn’t home for dinner, then I’ve made some sort of negative assumption; I’ve told myself a negative story.

Once I feel my emotion and notice the negative assumption that preceded it, I can either begin to check it out or decide to make a more positive assumption.

If I want to lower my blood pressure quickly, I can pick up the phone and call. If I choose to make a more positive assumption then I begin thinking about all the understandable and benign reasons that a person might be late and unable to call.

When I begin to think about all the acceptable reasons that a person might be late and unable to call, then I’m starting to make what communication experts call “generous assumptions.”

Generous assumptions are good for us in several ways. In addition to being good for our relationships, generous assumptions are also good for our health and our general well-being. Biologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, writes that changing how we perceive others and our world dramatically alters our likelihood of getting certain diseases.

Because of the payoff he’s received after his conversion, my husband nudged me to write this article. He maintains that catching his negative assumptions and switching them to more generous assumptions is one of the best transformations he’s made to alter his happiness and effectiveness. For one thing he now feels less necessity to give impolite hand gestures to his fellow drivers on the road.

How might we Journey to The Good Life by noticing our stories, checking out our assumptions, and making more positive interpretations?


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