Better to Ask Than Assume

Written by Melissa Kessler, MA, PCC

We all tend to make quick judgments with limited information in this fast-paced day and age. It’s both necessary and dangerous. According to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, we are faced with around 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. Because the human brain can only process about 40 bits of information at a time, it creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions. Unfortunately, our assumptions are often wrong.

I often refer to the ladder of inference, developed by Chris Argyris, in my leadership training courses. This ladder shows several rungs, starting at the bottom where we make observations from our experiences and then climb upward. At the next rung, we select data from what we observed. Then we add our own meanings to the data based upon our past history. From there, we make some assumptions, draw conclusions, and adopt some beliefs. Finally, at the very top rung of the ladder, we take action based on our beliefs from our made-up assumptions and conclusions.

It’s so easy to make assumptions that we fully believe to be true without ever checking them out. “My boss doesn’t like me because she doesn’t make an effort to talk to me or give me feedback. My co-worker is incompetent because he didn’t respond to my email. My friend’s new boyfriend is untrustworthy because he resembles my ex.”  Many times, these beliefs lead us to distance ourselves from the people we jump to conclusions about rather than checking out our assumptions.

Here are some questions you can ask to help you climb back down the ladder of inference:

  • What proof do I have that this belief is true?
  • What other possibilities could explain this?
  • What could I ask to check my assumptions?

We need to remind ourselves that our judgments are not always correct. We need to check our assumptions and ask questions. It’s always better to ask than to assume, especially when a relationship is at stake.

“Don’t believe everything you think.” – Byron Katie

 “Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want.” – Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

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