In his book The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz sets out four tenets which he suggests can help shape a wise and fulfilling life. Perhaps the one which I have consistently found the most challenging contains the deceptively simply exhortation: “Don’t make assumptions”.
I have been reflecting on this a fair bit, as lately I seem to have found myself frequently participating in newly formed groups, or becoming a new member of established ones. When faced with meeting people for the first time, particularly when there are a number of new faces, it is all too easy to jump to conclusions, perhaps in an effort to categorise people and make the whole experience more safe and manageable.
I guess the assumptions that we are most familiar with are some of the negative judgments we reach. “He was rather loud, he wants to control the group”; “I didn’t warm to her at all, she was very stand-offish”; “He’s always dominating the conversation, it’s really annoying, he won’t let anyone else get a word in”. And very often our assumptions prove wrong, as we discover that perhaps the loud man is just rather vulnerable, the cool lady just had a really rotten weekend, and the domineering fellow is in a job where he feels unable to express his views and is relishing the ability to speak freely.
With a bit of practice, we normally find it easier to spot these assumptions as we are making them, or at least very shortly afterwards. That rarely means we don’t make them at all! But the very act of elevating them into our awareness leaves us better able to manage the way in which they affect our feelings, and our behaviour towards those about whom we have made them.
In my experience, the assumptions that are hardest to manage are those that we might see as praising. “She’s impressive – so much more confident than I am”; “He’s a much more experienced and better manager than me”; “She’s so articulate, the group respects her much more than they do me”.
Perhaps what makes these assumptions harder to challenge is that we are predisposed to question our negative assessments of others more than our positive ones. And linked to that, it’s also because these “praising” assumptions are explicitly assumptions about our own worth (or lack of it), as much as they are about the other person’s. Put simply, it’s sometimes easier to force ourselves to be fair to others than it is to be fair to ourselves.
But challenge them we must, because they are potentially just as misguided and damaging as any other kind. Not only can they put pressure on the ostensibly “praised” person to act in a certain way, but they can also box us into a corner of behaving in a particular way towards them. The confident lady may in fact be frightened and in need of support, the experienced manager may be trying to navigate an unfamiliar situation and need help, and the articulate person may be struggling to find an emotional connection beyond the words themselves.
A great coach I worked with once told me with a smile: “‘Assume’ makes an ass of u and me“. We owe it both to ourselves and to those we work with to challenge our assumptions, both critical and praising, to help us achieve more honest and productive relationships.