The Power of Assumptions
The Brain’s Number One Shortcut Tool
By Scott Eck and Jim Deken
Generally speaking, human beings have aversions both to change and to uncertainty. We want to feel “in control” and to be able to predict effectively what’s going to happen next. The brain and the ego work together routinely to satisfy these desires. But when massive change and uncertainty are present, the brain’s number one shortcut tool, assumptions, shifts into overdrive.
As we encounter each person or situation throughout the day, the brain presents us with the details, emotions, and outcomes of prior dealings with these same (or similar) individuals or circumstances. The ego then kicks in, assuring us that these suppositions are all we need to predict with confidence the best way to conduct ourselves in order to optimize our personal outcome.
The result of this process is that we tend to presume that previous experiences will inevitably be repeated. We take it “for granted” that the present scenario will play out according to the model that the brain and the ego have constructed, and we decide to behave accordingly. We tell ourselves things like, “This guy was in the military, so he’s bossy and opinionated, which means I’ll have to ______________”, or “These meetings are always boring, so I’ll just ________________”. These suppositions, the things we take for granted, are called assumptions.
It’s entirely possible (and quite common) to have both positive and negative assumptions about a person or situation. The balance (or lack of it) between these sets of assumptions is what frequently influences not only our decisions about the behaviors we will exhibit during the encounter, but also the success or failure of the interaction itself.
Know this: you will always have assumptions – you must decide to control them or they will control you.
While it’s true that assumptions play a valuable and necessary role in your life (as do most of the brain’s strategies), they can cause problems if not properly guided by your intellect and regulated by your will. Consider that, absent such guidance and regulation, blindly following your assumptions could:
- lead you to trust someone who is trying to manipulate you;
- cause you to overlook an individual with a valuable contribution to make; or
- result in your mistrusting a person who actually shares your goals.
When you allow your experience-based assumptions to shape your approach to another person or to a situation, you risk missing an important opportunity. Often, you won’t allow yourself to seek ways to make a positive relationship even stronger, nor will you consider how you might make a negative relationship better (or, at the very least, keep it from getting any worse). Oftentimes, the past is not always a good predictor of the future, especially when the future is full of uncertainty and fear.
For example, an individual who proved challenging in your earlier interaction(s) may simply have been having a “bad day” or may have been dealing with work pressures, serious illness, personal issues, or family matters about which you know nothing. In addition, the timing and/or location of the interaction may have presented an insurmountable distraction. Any of those (and any number of other conditions) can easily inhibit people (yourself included) from being at their best.
In short, while assumptions can be helpful in minimizing uncertainty, they can cause problems when you rely on them disproportionately. Knowing how assumptions are formed and recognizing some of the ways they can affect your efforts to build a high-status environment for yourself and those around you is a good start, but now it’s time to take action. Part of any good leadership development trajectory involves being introduced to (or reminded of) techniques for identifying and managing assumptions. The overarching concept is to train both your brain and your ego to prioritize your assumptions properly, giving them neither more nor less weight than they deserve.
You will want to form the habit of reviewing and evaluating your assumptions regarding specific individuals and/or situations on a regular basis. The best time to do this is before you encounter the person or enter the situation. Once the interaction has started, the clock is ticking, and it’s too late for reflection. Has the environment changed from the previous instance? Is the person in a different job with different pressures and demands? What other factors may be different this time than in your prior experience? Before entering into any human transaction, it’s essential to check in with yourself first, to see which of your assumptions are in play. Armed with this critical self-awareness, you can then begin the process of managing such assumptions, before they start to manage you.
Another important thing to keep in mind prior to entering into any human transaction is that assumptions work both ways. What are the other person’s apparent or likely assumptions about you? Were you “at your best” last time out? If not, why not? Awareness of how assumptions work in others is equally critical to managing your own. Having awareness of all possible assumptions means that you will become more effective in influencing the energy of any human exchange.
Like any other improvement we make in our lives, becoming aware of how assumptions work in ourselves, and in others, will require effort and commitment. Effort to begin this critical self-awareness project, and the commitment to repeat it before entering into any human transaction. As you begin to see the results, you’ll know it was well worth investing both.
Scott Eck, Jim Deken May 2018