Top Ten Interpersonal Skills -1- Useful Assumptions
Today, I’m beginning a series of posts of the Top Ten Interpersonal Communication Skills I’ve learned in my life. I originally developed this list for J.D. Meier’s excellent blog, Sources of Insight.
The most essential skill I’ve learned, and the one that informs the other 9 best, has to be this.
Make useful assumptions.
Making assumptions is easy. Making useful ones requires intelligence and intent. So making useful assumptions is a learned behavior and an acquired skill. It’s worth learning, because it opens the doorway to all kinds of positive change and outcomes in every sort of relationship. That’s because assumptions determine behavior and behavior produces experiences that reinforce initial assumptions. It’s the loop of self fulfilling prophecy, or what I like to call the ‘nature of sanity.’
Sanity is that mental state in which you think you know who you are, where you are, and in general, what’s going on. To break it down a little further, first you assume that you know something. Once you make an assumption (about yourself, about others, about situations, etc.) you inevitably will act as if your assumption is true. And your actions will have effects, in that you will find evidence in order to have the experience that your assumption is true. Said another way, you get to be right. Getting to be right is the booby prize in communication. (The booby prize is the prize given to the losers!) Let’s say it yet another way. “For as you believe, so shall it be.” Whatever you assume to be true, you act like it’s true and look for proof. The nature of sanity is an exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy. While being right rarely leads to change, it frequently leads to conflict.
Fortunately for humanity, someone came up with the scientific method to overcome the blinders placed on us by the nature of sanity. The scientific method involves forming a working hypothesis (an assumption), then acting as if it isn’t true (testing it, trying to disprove it) and if it remains standing after all that work, you think, hmmm, I guess I’m on to something! Thanks to the scientific method, the human race has experienced breakthrough after breakthrough in our understanding of the universe and our place in it. For most people, it isn’t easy to have breakthroughs, because it seems to go against the nature of sanity.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make assumptions. My wife brought home a book last year called ‘The Four Agreements.’ One of the agreements was to make no assumptions. When I saw this, i told my wife, “This guy is assuming I can do that!” I can’t, and I doubt that you can either. Assumptions play a key role in our ability to navigate in life. After all, you wouldn’t want to have to figure everything out all the time all over again, right?
The role that our assumptions play in communication success is fundamental. And the challenge with assumptions is to make useful ones rather than limiting ones. A useful assumption gives you enough informed perspective on your own behavior and the behavior of others that you can engage in behaviors that lead to worthwhile outcomes. A limiting assumption holds you back, ties you down, and traps you into self-defeating and counterproductive behavior. In other words, your assumptions can either facilitate your communication efforts or obstruct them. Negative reactions, wrong interpretations, and polarizing positions constitute the interference and obstacles of interpersonal communication that occur as a result of limiting assumptions.
Maybe you have people in your life that will nod their head in agreement whenever you describe your limiting assumptions about certain people. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. It turns out that it is pretty easy to find people to agree with anything that ties you up, holds you back, or traps you into self-defeating behavior. Why? Misery loves company.
It can be a bit more challenging to find people who understand that it doesn’t matter if the person is a jerk or a moron. What matters is what you assume to be true and base your own behavior on. Because limiting assumptions about people inhibit your creativity and resourcefulness, trigger negative reactions in you, and cause you to engage in behaviors that lead to limiting and self-fulfilling outcomes. “I knew he wouldn’t listen.” “I knew she didn’t care.” Did you? Then you win the booby prize, which is the prize the losers get.
Now you may be thinking, “Yeah, but what I’m right about them?” Well, what if? Does it help you or hinder you to be right about that? Like I said, you have to assume something you will be able to do nothing at all. But useful assumptions empower you, while limiting assumptions limit you. And if you must assume something, I say assume something useful. You don’t have to be right about a useful assumption. But you can use it to find a vector of approach, employ a congruent strategy of communication, and create the possibility of a successful interaction.
I don’t know what your assumptions are about commenting on this blog. I hope they’re useful. Like, “I bet he’s serious when he asks for comments at the end of every post!” What I’m saying here is that I’d love to get your feedback and comments, on this post and on this series. And I’d love it if you assumed that whatever you might say, no matter how long or short, how deep or shallow, it is useful to me to hear from you!
Rick is a best selling author and the founder of the Art of Change Skills for Life. His book titles include, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to bring out the best in people at their worst, Life by Design and Influence and the Art of Persuasion. These days he is spending quality time away from the spotlight enjoying the company of his wife and practicing his electric guitar.