Understand Other People

Better communication through a better understanding of behavior

Don’t Assume I Know What You Mean

Stop. Take some time to be clear.

Has there been any time this week you were frustrated with your spouse, significant other or a family member because they just didn’t get it? Did you think they “should just know” what you meant, or what you were talking about? All too often during each day, for multiple communication exchanges, we assume that someone else knows what we mean.

Why do we do this? In certain fields, like science and technology, we may have an assumption and then test that assumption to see if it is true or not. Testing a hypothesis or making an inference from something we have learned is perfectly natural.

But in relationships, assumptions can be very destructive. One of my favorite stories to illustrate this was on a radio show where I was being interviewed. The host told a story of how she had prepared a list for her husband of several items she needed at the store. She thought it made sense to number the list – and assumed that her husband would benefit from the numbers: item number one, item number two, etc. Unfortunately, her husband thought that the numbers on the list meant the number of items. He bought one bag of sugar, two bags of flour, up to twenty bags of 20-lb dog food. Now, we can laugh at this story, but think about what probably happened once he got home. She was furious at his lack of sense, and he was furious at her assumptions and not taking the time to be clear about what she meant.

When another person assumes incorrectly what we mean, or assumes something about us, we don’t often think “Well, that’s a reasonable assumption.” Instead, we think, “What is wrong with them?!” While we all make assumptions throughout the day (and some research shows we are wrong better than 50% of the time) we can, at times, be annoyed with other people who do it to us.

Sometimes we make assumptions because we simply don’t have the time to think something through or do an analysis and check for understanding. We might be on the highway and our partner says, “Turn here” and we think they mean the next exit, when maybe there was a side road running off the highway and that’s what they were referring to. It would not be practical, at 60 miles an hour, to turn and ask them, “What do you mean, exactly?”

However, in our normal day-to-day lives we often don’t stop and take the time that we should to inquire about what someone else means or is trying to say. We don’t practice active and reflective listening. Active listening is when we seek to understand, more than wanting to be understood. We ask questions, we probe for what’s underneath a person’s statements, and we engage until we have our own personal “Ah-hah!” about what the other individual is trying to communicate.

Reflective listening is when we mirror back what we think we have heard. In my example above, the husband could have practiced this by saying, “This list contains the things you want and also has the number of each item. So for example, I am to get three bags of flour and twenty bags of dog food?” The wife could then see the mistake and fix it before the shopping trip was over! We are all in so much of a hurry that we don’t stop to do this. And yet, think about the frustration and wasted time when we don’t get what we want. We would save ourselves, and those we care about, much angst if we just took the time during our conversation and communication to clarify.

We can also make assumptions about people. We see a sticker on their bumper, or hear them talk about a political candidate, or hear what they are doing for the weekend and we assume we know what kind of person they must be. We often don’t realize our filters are operating like this and we aren’t letting the person fully reveal themselves, but rather we are identifying who they must be and then putting them in the box that fits.

How many of us have had the experience where we assume something about someone, but then we find out something entirely different once we explore further or get to know the person? I can say that I’ve had this happen on many an occasion, and it has taught me to watch my own filters. We miss out on really knowing another person and who they are, what they care about, when we don’t take the time to let them reveal themselves.

Think about your own assumptions. Are there “types of people” you generally like or don’t like? Are there certain phrases or types of language that are a “turn off” or that you gravitate towards? It can be interesting to explore our own filters and the assumptions that fill them.

Beverly D. Flaxington teaches at Suffolk University.

more...

Subscribe to Understand Other People

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.