When I was six years old, I really wanted a sleeping bag.
My parents had dropped hints, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, that my aunt and uncle might be gifting me one. So after opening their present to me on Christmas Day only to find just a Snow White bag — an ordinary one, not a body-sized sack one could sleep in — my heart sank. You could see it on my face.
I told my dad I was disappointed; he chuckled and told me to look inside the bag.
He was right, I discovered when unzipping it. As the sleeping bag elongated from the pull of my hands, I sheepishly thanked my aunt and uncle while averting eye contact out of embarrassment.
Though I’d assumed it would burst out of the wrapping paper as soon as I opened it, my dad gently explained to me that most sleeping bags are packaged this way.
I didn’t know the word “assumption” at the time — but I did know that I’d made one.
We all make assumptions. As Danielle Searle phrased it: “We assume what another person is feeling or thinking. We assume how that person is going to respond to us. We create a story in our heads about how others see us, how they judge us, or whether they like or care about us. We make these assumptions all the time, but we don’t realize that they are assumptions. We treat them as absolute truth. We believe them without hesitation. We’re often wrong.” https://www.goldcoastmediationandresolution.com.au/blog/assumptions-in-relationships/
Making assumptions is a human thing to do. Still, the accumulation of them unchecked can lead to issues. After one piles onto another, the weight can harm relationships.
So how can we become more mindful of when we’re making them, as well as shift course once we notice we have (while not at the expense of invalidating our feelings)?
1.) State the assumption out loud before acting on it — gently and with an attempt at empathy towards the other person.
Many times in disagreement, one or both people have made an assumption. Sometimes even one misspoken word can birth an assumption that alters their entire understanding of the interaction. At times we don’t even realize until after that the simple assumption was what ignited the entire conflict. By then, perhaps some amount of damage has been done.
Identifying the assumption that has just been made (before things escalate) is important. This can be difficult because once ignited, intense emotions often cloud perceptions (on both sides) of what’s really happening. To prevent escalation, we can take a step back from the interaction. We can apply the investigative lens of the researcher looking for assumptions (and clarifying with questions in their search).
Some of us, particularly those who are more introverted and less naturally forthright in our communication, aren’t necessarily more prone to making assumptions — but we may be less prone to verbalizing them. Therefore, the assumptions don’t get the chance to be corrected. So, this piece is especially important for introverts.
Assumption checking requires that both sides be vulnerable. It’s easier to use code or to speak indirectly because direct speech always brings the possibility of rejection. Try to remember, though, that it also carries with it the potential for far stronger relationships.
2.) Keep your eyes open to behavior that challenges your assumptions.
All humans operate with some level of confirmation bias. This means that we pay more attention to the evidence that supports a pre-existing opinion or belief.
Think of it as each of us having a quilt. Each contains pieces of the same size and shape, cut from the same fabric. All are strung together into a pattern. The pieces represent specific instances — concrete, distinct memories of times a person behaved in a way comparable to how they seem to be behaving right now. Once sewn onto the quilt, the pieces often stay. Muscle memory compels us to keep adding the same type of fabric to it.
An example: Marla thinks of Sandra as a perpetually tardy person, because in the past, Sandra arrived late to a few of their gatherings. So when Sandra is late again, it reminds Marla of the times she was late in the past. Her mind rejects the explanation, “Sandra is late because she got off on the wrong exit; the GPS routed her to Pleasanton.” All it hears is ‘Sandra is late.” Her mind zeroes in on that part, disregarding the rest.
The thing is though that sometimes — maybe even often — people will behave in ways that defy the quilt’s general theme. And unknowingly, we ignore it when they do — attending instead exclusively to the quilt-concordant behavior. We tune in only when the other person behaves in a way that fits with our pre-existing image of them.
It makes sense why we do this. Generalizations help prepare us to know what to expect in the future. Plus uniform, cohesive quilts are prettier to look at. All the pieces fit together. Holding onto them conjures the same form of comfort that practicing minimalism does.
The main problem with them is that they’re just not real. What’s real is the funny-looking thing with all the weird unharmonious images juxtaposed against one another. That’s what humans are. The disjointed quilt more closely embodies us in all of our complexity.
When we don’t pay attention to quilt-defying behavior, we’ve eliminated the possibility that another person may surprise us. And people, if we let them, often can.
3.) Clear out space to listen to others’ alternative interpretations, with the possibility that they could clear up your assumptions.
Take the following example. Martha became upset with Cindy for leaving crumbs on the kitchen floor. Part of the reason Cindy did this, though, was because the night before, she had kept the lights off so as not to wake Martha (whose room shared a wall with the kitchen). Unable to see, she made more of a mess.
Martha’s assumption: Cindy hadn’t been careful. She was only thinking of herself. The truth, though, was that Cindy had taken care, even keeping the lights off out of consideration.
Because Martha confronted Cindy right away about the source of her annoyance, Cindy was able to immediately clear up the miscommunication sparked by the assumption (whereas passive-aggressively stewing over it would have led to growing resentment over time).
Experiences like these might encourage us to stop and think before accusing; to consider other angles or at least approach an issue from a position of seeking to have a dialogue about it.
4.) Conceptualize abject versus friendly interpretations.
Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton provides a helpful framework for thinking about this topic. Botton outlines the distinction between abject and friendly interpretations in the following example: an abject interpretation would be, the builder is hammering in order to annoy me. A friendly interpretation would be, the builder is hammering and I am annoyed.
Though humans are prone to making abject interpretations, we can train our minds to shift to friendly ones. Botton writes, “We should trust that those making a noise know nothing of us. We should place a fireguard between the noise outside and an internal sense of deserving punishment. We should not import into scenarios where they don’t belong pessimistic interpretations of others’ motives.”
5.) Try shifting your attention to your own feelings and internal experience when you begin to judge the actions of the other person.
When we’re feeling bad, we may be more likely to believe in whichever negative assumptions bubble up. We also may be less equipped to let them roll off us. Instead, our mind might unconsciously pull up the fuel of past experiences as ammo to justify them. Sometimes we’ll resurrect reasons or explanations that are no longer valid, or that have become obsolete.
We can turn more lovingly toward our internal experiences to keep from falling into this.
Practicing self-care — getting better quality sleep, eating less sugar, exercising, you’ve heard them all — will help us with this. An absence of any of these contributes to the negative head space in which assumptions are more likely to fester, as well as increased reactivity.
6.) Wait and give it time.
Once at an interpreting appointment, I was positive that the doctor had just asked the patient whether she’d run a cocaine business back in Central America.
Oh my god, that was so rude and racist, I thought.
It turned out, though, that he’d said “cooking business.”
Sometimes the assumption clears up on its own, or the reality becomes clearer with time.
7.) Come up with alternative explanations to the assumptions.
When you find yourself landing on a particular assumption, ask yourself: What else could be true?
A very basic example: back when I was a Lyft driver a few years ago, a passenger didn’t feel like talking. He’d told me he’d lost his car keys that morning. So, alternatives to the assumption “he dislikes me” were: “Maybe he’s stressed about where his keys are right now. Maybe he’s fretting over how much it will cost to get new ones. Maybe he’s frustrated at having to spend forty dollars to take him to his destination.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with making assumptions; it’s just something that our minds do, and there’s no need to feel shame about it. However, because they can sometimes harm our relationships and quality of life, it’s in all of our best interests to address them when possible.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash