Four Leaps to Stop Making Assumptions

by Alli Polin on April 9, 2014

How can I stop making negative assumptions? Start with assuming the best.

I don’t know about you but nearly every day I encounter someone or something that makes me frustrated and I immediately begin to make assumptions and create stories about the underlying truth (and in my made-up-world it’s rarely positive.)  It happens often enough that I now wonder how can I simply stop making assumptions and invite stronger relationships.

  • I’ll bet the person at the store checkout that was rude to me is just a nasty person.
  • I don’t like the homework my child brings home from school, clearly the teacher isn’t great.
  • My neighbor left their trash cans out on the curb for the past three weeks.  Are they too lazy to bring them in?
  • I gave perfectly clear direction and this is what I get? They must be incompetent.

Just as I wallow in my assumptions, I discover time and time again that I’m flat out wrong.  Truth is, my assumptions are the equivalent of tall tales.  The worse part is that my assumptions didn’t make me feel better, but they did make me feel more justified in my response to the other person.

Feels Good to Be Justified

Who doesn’t like to be right?  Interestingly, justifications do not make us right, they simply make us feel that way and take the mental pressure off of our choices.  Justification is the bridge between the way we see the world and how we believe the world must see us too. If I’m justified, I’m right and my assumptions back up my story.

What If I’m Wrong?

Scenario One:
Leaving school last week my daughter stopped to wave to her friend and called out her name.  I would have bet big money that she looked right at her and her friend intentionally ignored her.  Some friend!   Immediately, I felt angry that this person was ignoring my sweet daughter.  My girl, a role model for positivity simply said, “I just don’t think she saw me.”

Ah-Ha:
We continued to walk towards the car and I started to really dig into my feeling that this new friend was a bad person.  After all, I heard she’s a troublemaker.  Imagine my surprise when my negative thoughts were interrupted as she called out my daughter’s name in the parking lot and was waving.  Guess she didn’t see her after all. 

Scenario Two:
After getting caught up in my feelings about my daughter being ignored, I hustled into the car feeling better yet also ashamed that I jumped to such a negative conclusion.

Ah-Ha: 
That afternoon our family friend came by the house to pick up his son.  The first thing he asked was “Did you see me waving to you? I was in the green car.”  I didn’t see him; I was too caught up in my own world!

Both stories are the same at their heart, but while I was jumping to conclusions, my daughter and friend demonstrated healthy coping strategies.  Let’s break them down:

How Can I Stop Making Assumptions?

Assume the Best
While there are mean and manipulative people in the world, truly, most people are doing the best they can.  When you assume the best, your assumptions color your experience, your interactions and your relationship.

Don’t Make Up Stories, Ask
My friend asked if I saw him in the parking lot instead of spinning tales.  When you get curious about someone, let go of your need to be justified, without a doubt their true story will be revealed.

Drop the Tension
When you dive into justification, you up the tension between you and the object of your justification.  In that equation, you’re a human being, faults and all, and they’re an object that is in your way.  Drop the tension and give people the space to be human too.

Freely Give Trust
If someone tells you why they never called, declined your offer, or was speaking out of anger, believe them.  Doubt is about you, but trust is a choice that is about both of you.

Break the Frame Action:

If you’re going to leap to conclusions, consciously assume the best of others and see how that transforms your interactions, relationships and leadership.

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Feeley April 9, 2014 at 6:26 am

This is a great post Alli. Your examples of assumptions; the explanation of your thoughts and then the actual truth are so well expressed. I love that kind of personal texture — using your thoughts and feelings to define and describe assumptions.

‘Consciously assume the best of others…’ are the words that stick with me most from your writing. It’s a mantra and purpose we all can have throughout our days.

(I just posted a Blog on Coaching the Four Big Energy Blocks and assumptions is one of them. You’re given me more insight. We’re in sync.)

Thank you.

My very best – Michael

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 9:48 am

Michael,

Thanks for your comment and insights! You know I’m about to head over to your blog now :)

You know, those are probably the words that stick out the most for me about this post too. Assume the best. I’m working on it as I know so many others are too.

Many thanks!

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Matt April 9, 2014 at 9:57 am

More awesomesauce Alli! A great reminder of something I like to remind myself of: Six of the most powerful words are “I don’t know, and that’s okay.”

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

Those are crazy powerful words, Matt! Whether it’s questions and fighting our desire to look smart or assumptions and fighting our desire to know better and be better… there is something to be said for allowing not knowing.

Thanks, Matt!

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Bill April 9, 2014 at 9:59 am

Alli,
I said hi the other day in TweetChat to you and you never responded. I just assumed you were ignoring me – LOL :-)

Seriously, I love “assume the best’. Most people don’t wake up each morning thinking of ways to torment another person or make their day unbearable for their boss. It’s simply not on their agenda – yet when things happen, we often think otherwise.

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 10:37 am

Oh my gosh, Bill!! Totally was not ignoring you!!!

I’m with you… I truly believe that most people are good and want to be and do their best. I’ve seen enough people do awful things that the were sure were simply “right” or didn’t know that they were doing it at all to know that’s the case.

I appreciate you, Bill!

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Carl April 9, 2014 at 10:00 am

Another great post Alli – we could do an entire workshop on how to deal with perceptions and assumptions – both are joined at the hip.

Best regards,
Carl
@SparktheAction

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 9:50 am

Seriously! There is a lot to unpack around perceptions and assumptions. Hummm… a workshop may be in the works now! :)

Thanks so much, Carl!

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Terri Klass April 9, 2014 at 10:28 am

Ok, so I will come clean here, Alli. I assumed you were away this week or had visitors or didn’t feel well (hoping the latter was wrong). I was about to email you when I saw this post. Boy, I absolutely make assumptions and they are often wrong.

In fact, I take my assumptions to an insane level in restaurants. I watch the people at the other tables and often make up stories about them and their relationships. But as you so beautifully reminded us in your post, assumptions can point us in the opposite direction of what is the truth.

Well done my friend and hope you had fun with the fam at the beach!

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

How funny, Terri! I’ve been seriously restricting my online time this week to be fully present with my family.

I wonder how often I’m spot on with my assumptions… I’ll guess rarely but like you I’m a champ at making up stories! Restaurants are a fascinating place to people-watch. I can still remember a couple I watched eating dinner at a restaurant years and years ago. They stick out to me because they literally did not say a word to each other for the entire meal. I have thoughts about why but I’m sure I’m wrong.

Thanks for sharing your experience too, Terri!

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Susan Bowen April 9, 2014 at 10:55 am

Hi Alli,

Thanks for this great post. I often see employees immediately assume the worst, especially during times of change and organizational disruption. Your words of wisdom are helpful for all of us!

All the best,

Susan

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 9:56 am

Susan, I’ve seen that too! I think that it’s also challenging when their negative assumptions are met head on by (false) denials meant to keep everyone heads down. That’s when assumptions are the seeds for feelings of hurt and betrayal.

Thanks for sharing your insight and experience here, Susan!

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Jon Mertz April 9, 2014 at 11:06 am

Alli, Great advice (as usual)! I especially like your points about assuming the best and not making things up. Our minds tend to wonder in the other direction and we need to be mindful of this and make the correction in our thinking and actions. Mindfulness would play a big role in not making assumptions or, at least, in releasing them in the right, beneficial way. Thanks! Jon

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

Most people truly do tend to gravitate towards the dark side and need to consciously cultivate a positive outlook. Even when they’re positive, assumptions definitely don’t always serve us but it does give more room for people to step up as their best instead of digging out from the worst.

Always appreciate your insights on mindfulness… definitely look to you to help lead the way! Thanks, Jon!

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LaRae Quy April 9, 2014 at 11:08 am

Love this, Alli.

Yesterday morning I got groceries early because I had a full day. The only checkout open was the “12 items or less.” So I unloaded my cart there.

The woman behind me gave me an incredibly “judgmental” scowl. I turned to her and said, “It’s the only checkstand open.” She was pretty humbled, and apologized for the look she gave me.

Assumptions….

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Chery Gegelman April 9, 2014 at 1:57 pm

LaRae,

I love your example! I’ve been the giver and the receiver in similar situations!

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 10:04 am

LaRae – Like Chery, I’ve been there too! Also really interesting to me that you said something and how that opened up your relationship. You could have just been annoyed by her judgmental look and she could have continued to felt superior to you and your bad decision…. but speaking up made a difference. I know it was just a silly moment in time but speaking up instead of digging in is always the way to go.

You rock, LaRae!

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Chery Gegelman April 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Alli – I love the post! The crazy part of assumptions is that even when I’ve been more aware and focused on not making them, I’ve caught myself in the act – Ugh!

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 10:06 am

You know, the more I catch myself in the act of some of my “bad” behaviors, the less I fall into them over time. Awareness works wonders and is definitely the place to start on the journey of sustained change!

Appreciate you!!

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Tom Rhodes April 9, 2014 at 9:44 pm

Alli~ your real life down to earth posts are wonderful. Assumptions, we all learned what assume means and yet we all do it daily. I definitely need to get better.
Thanks for the great post.

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Alli Polin April 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

You’re right, Tom. We are all taught “assumptions are bad” but we do it all the time. That’s actually really interesting, isn’t it? Knowing it’s bad and can damage our relationships is not enough to get us to stop. I believe that they key is something deeper, only found in our relationships with each other.

Really appreciate your feedback and sharing!

Thanks, Tom!

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Joy Guthrie April 10, 2014 at 10:42 am

Love the post Alli. I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about; but, I’ll strive to figure it out next time I’m in such a situation… Geez, I do this all the time. Thanks for the message!

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Alli Polin April 14, 2014 at 11:11 pm

Thanks for making me laugh, Joy. I’d love to think that I’m above such silly behavior but clearly, like you, I’m a work in progress. You rock by the way.

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Muhammed Rafeeque April 10, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Alli, I like your presentation style & the topic. My observation:
Making assumptions are natural & spontaneous..by default, the human mind works on its negative thoughts…what all we can do is that you acknowledge the thoughts..yes I created an assumption about it…this awareness will take away such assumptions…

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Alli Polin April 14, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Muhammed,

I agree. As humans, so often we’ll turn towards the dark side easily but need help to turn towards the light. It happens in a heart beat too. The best thing any of us can do is notice. Notice when it’s happening, notice how we’re feeling and notice how it impacts the way we see and engage with others… and then consciously begin to make another choice. Awareness is absolutely where it starts.

Many thanks for sharing your insights here!

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Karin Hurt April 11, 2014 at 9:41 am

Beautiful post. I really need to get better at this. It’s so easy to leap to “meaning” and interpetation. It’s funny how much easier it is to help others step away and consider the possibilites than it is for ourselves.

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Alli Polin April 14, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Karin – It is easier to see in others what we’re blind to in ourselves. Safer? More comfortable? Maybe. Clearly, I need to get better at it too.

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