My mission president used to say, “When you ‘assume,’ Elder, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.'” (Gasp! He said that?! But … how?! I thought …) I suppose when you’re El Jefe you can get away with that. Plus, our religion wouldn’t be as interesting if we didn’t have some of those dichotomies to keep us on our toes: General Authorities at Chuck-a-rama on Sunday!? Bishops watching football games on the Sabbath!? I digress …
It turns out his saying was more than a trite play on words — it is the key to successfully working with all people in every situation on planet Earth (and likely beyond), from leading a work group to managing a marriage to navigating the holidays. Don’t make assumptions! When you assume someone understands something, you are setting yourself up for failure. And yet this happens all too often and is really probably the root of most of the dysfunction we experience.
For example, I often assume:
-My wife knows what kind of day I had at work.
-My wife will change the poopy diaper.
-My kids knew the rules and proactively broke them.
-That driver knew I was right behind him when he cut me off.
-My coworker knew what I expected of him.
-My employee understood the task I assigned, the date it was due, and what level of effort was expected.
-My seminary kids know exactly how they are supposed to behave and innately have a desire to learn the Gospel and build their testimonies.
This list could go on forever. That’s because I make a lot of assumptions. Most of us naturally assume people think like we do, have experienced what we have gone through, and are on the same level spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, and any other “-ally” you can come up with. In fact, it takes more effort to consciously think the way another may be thinking. We are hardwired this way. And yet, most people are having a completely different experience than us! Assumptions create tension when our expectations aren’t fulfilled.
Yesterday I went to a new driving range at 2:30 p.m. to hit some balls. I purchased three rounds of golf balls on a Club Card (it’s a fancy driving range) and went to the ball dispenser. I decided to only cash in two of them since I didn’t know if I had the stamina for that many rounds. After hitting those two rounds of balls, I went back to the machine, only to find that my third round was denied. I headed to the front desk to figure out the situation and the worker explained that the price for a round goes up after 3 p.m. and I would need to pay an extra $2.20 to release my third round of golf balls. She was uncompromising. I was ticked and let her know that policy was never explained to me. She assumed I knew the rules and was equally disgruntled to have to give in and acquiesce a customer. If you analyze this anecdote, the root of the dysfunction was assumption (and poor customer service, a disorganized management system, and a weird driving range concept).
So what’s the opposite of assuming? Or, in other words, how can you avoid this pitfall in your relationships?
Several weeks ago, I hosted the CEO of Allegiance Bank on campus at Rice. He came to speak to a group of staff, faculty, students, and community members about the unconventional leadership approach he utilized, resulting in spectacular performance and the notable distinction from Forbes’ magazine of “one of 100 Best Companies to Work For.” One of the keys to his success, he said, was to not make assumptions. He stated, “If you want to be a great leader, start by listening. The essence of leadership is empowering those around you to live up to their potential. It’s hard to manage your expectations on other people but easier if other people say, ‘I agree to that.’ So invite them, and if they agree then hold them accountable.”
Said in another way, be direct! Be explicit. If you think there may be a chance that the other person doesn’t understand, take the time to ask questions, listen to the responses, and set the expectation.
My wife commented recently that this has been her key to being a great spouse (and she is a fantastic one!). She doesn’t assume. She learned early in our marriage that I am a simple creature who is generally more than willing to help out where needed but that I may sometimes be oblivious to her needs or to tasks that need to be done. So she simply asks. She expresses herself. And, as a result, she gets what she needs when she needs it. I’ve even become more in tune with her and can sometimes head off a request before it comes, all as a result of her being explicit and asking for what she needs.
One more anecdote: My wife’s sister called her several days ago from college complaining that her boyfriend didn’t offer to walk her to her car. Apparently the story went something like this: They were studying at the library and he was getting ready to leave. She asked if he wanted her to walk with him to his car. He, of course, said yes. Really, she was baiting him to offer to walk with her to her car but he didn’t pick up on her hints. They got to his car, said goodnight, and he drove off. She was left standing there, disappointed that he didn’t say, “You know what? Why don’t I walk you to your car instead.” My wife then revealed to her the secret to success in relationships: people are simple. Ask for what you need and watch them rise to your expectations. If they fall short, then judge if you feel so inclined. But don’t expect them to read your mind!
So try this experiment: Count the number of assumptions you make on a daily basis. Some are easier to identify than others. They are usually prefaced by phrases such as “I figured,” “I just thought,” or “what was that person thinking (in other words, ‘I assumed they would do something more along the lines of what I would have done in that situation!’).” You’ll probably be surprised by the result. Then, follow the other piece of advice my mission president used to give: “Open your mouth” and ask for what you need, make yourself known, and be explicit!