I spend at least 20 or more hours a week listening to and talking to people about their personal and leadership development, both one-on-one and in groups.  When you spend this amount of time day after day, year after year doing this—you can’t help but notice what tends to come up repeatedly.

What comes up over and over again are the false narratives people create about any given person or situation based upon the flawed assumptions they are making.

Yes, the assumptions you make about any given person or situation can be fundamentally flawed, and you probably don’t realize it.  This drives you to take actions that are less impactful than you would like, and it is all a result of what story you are making up (yes—we are all making up our own interpretation of any given situation) about the person or situation.

And while many of us describe and see ourselves as objective and non-judgmental, the reality is probably closer to the opposite, just based on the way our thought processes work.  So much of our mind is operating unconsciously, and as a result, we can’t readily see our own flawed assumptions.

Let me give you an example of the flawed assumptions trap in our everyday lives.

I lived in Greece for the duration of my childhood, and my mother is Greek.  In the Greek culture, as in any culture, there are some collectively socialized beliefs that form norms of behavior as the “right” way to act or respond in any given situation.  Over time, you learn these norms and they form the basis of your interactions with others.  For example, a Greek cultural norm is that when you visit someone at their house, whether it is for dinner, coffee, or for whatever other reason or occasion, you are expected to bring the host some small token of appreciation.  This is usually in the form of flowers, a dessert, wine, or some sort of gift for the children of the house, if there are any.  It is a shared cultural norm of behavior, with an underlying belief that it is considered rude not to show this appreciation in form of this token expression.

Several years ago, I was at the house of a childhood friend living here in the United States.  She had invited a group of people to her house for an informal barbeque—and many of the people attending were of Greek heritage.  One after the other, people showed up with their tokens of appreciation as they arrived at the party—homemade cakes, bottles of wine, flowers, and the like.  As I sat on the patio sipping a bottle of water, I overheard the following conversation:

“They have no manners,” one person whispered.

“I know,” the other confirmed.  “Some people just are plain rude.”

My ears perked up at the comment, and I tried to stretch my ears and tune out the noise to hear the rest of the conversation clearly.

“I think they are just cheap,” the woman proclaimed righteously.

“Yes, rude and cheap,” the other one agreed and laughed, and then proceeded to change subjects.

Hmmm…were those people they were discussing at the party really rude and cheap?  Kind of a harsh judgment of someone they didn’t even know, don’t you think?

Here’s what had happened here.

The two women observed a couple come to the gathering.  They also observed that this couple came without bringing a gift to the host.  Out of that limited observation, they selected the “they came without a gift” fact.  Then they took this fact and interpreted it, and developed a theory and belief to explain their interpretation. Then they had a mutual conversation about their judgment of the situation. (Not bringing a gift is unacceptable behavior; these people came to the party without gifts, when you don’t bring a gift you are rude, this is driven by not wanting to spend money; thus these people who did not bring gifts to the host are cheap and rude.)

If you are reading this and thinking, “yeah, but I don’t do this, that is so judgmental”—think again.  Stand back and think about how many times you have pulled out select facts, made your own story about them, and applied your own set of theories and beliefs to a conclusion—and ultimately had those conclusions drive your actions.  That’s just how our thinking process works.

An explanation of this thinking process was developed by Chris Argyris, a former professor at Harvard Business School, in what he calls “The Ladder of Inference”.  This ladder describes the reasoning process we use to make meaning out of events.  The process is similar to what I just described:

  1. We observe reality and facts
  2. We filter facts based on our prior knowledge and experience
  3. We interpret those filtered facts and make up what they mean
  4. We create assumptions based upon that meaning we made
  5. We draw conclusions based upon what we believe
  6. We create beliefs and further conclusions based upon our interpretations
  7. We take action based on these conclusions and beliefs

This is normal reasoning and makes sense.  It serves us well part of the time and helps us function reasonably and rationally.

The problem with it is that as a result of going through this process, more often than not we are convinced that our conclusions are “right”.    And other people go through the same exact reasoning process, but filter different facts based on their unique experiences, and interpret and make up stories based on their own beliefs and conclusions.  And those other people think that their differing conclusion are the right ones.  They too are smart, reasoning people using the same process.

No wonder conflict and communication issues are rampant in our interactions and relationships!

What to do?

Rather than trying to prove our “rightness”, there are a few things we can do to monitor our own tendency to jump to conclusions, assumptions, and judgments that may not really be valid.

This is an on-going process of self-monitoring and pausing to look at our own need to be right and come to a judgment or conclusion, rather than striving to be curious and seek to understand different perspectives.

Every time you find yourself making a swoop judgment or assumption—pause and do a self-check.  Ask yourself:

  • How do I know this?
  • What facts am I missing?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What beliefs or values am I basing this conclusion on?
  • What could be an alternate perspective or storyline here?
  • What questions can I ask to clarify or test my assumptions?

What we usually don’t realize is how much of what we believe is based on our own filtering of information, the stories and cultures we were socialized with, and the limitations of the experiences we have had up until now.  While all of those things can be enriching and bring to each of us a unique perspective and point of view—they can also serve to limit the lenses from which we see the entire system we are operating in.  Pausing to step back and move away from our limited lenses and challenge our own beliefs is a big step towards learning to be more aware of the limitations of our own often flawed assumptions.

Reminding ourselves to stay open and curious and to constantly challenge our own assumptions about any given person or situation is a great antidote to the limitations of the flawed lenses we all look through—and a great way to foster more collaboration, inclusiveness, and better relationships.