Assumptions are one of the great barriers to effective communication. In business, we fall into the assumption trap when we use terms that are defined differently by the speaker as opposed to the listener. For instance, what does “soon” mean in the statement “I need that report soon?” Or, we might assume that everyone is on the same page regarding expectations for a project even though no details have been asked for or provided. Is it any wonder when the execution of that project misses the mark?
Let me give you a personal … and painful! … example of assumptions in action.
Shortly after my wife and I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, I discovered there was an old-time barbershop on Washington Street, the main street in town. When I went for a haircut, the barber – who did a great job – said to me, “Hey, one of these times when you come in for a cut, why don’t you get a shave, too? Come in a little scruffy, if you can.” I replied, “That sounds like a great idea! I’ve never had an old-fashioned barbershop shave.”
So, a few weeks later, I let myself get a little scruffy around my mustache and goatee and go in for a shave and a haircut. After finishing the haircut, the barber leans me back and brings out the hot towels. He puts them on my face to warm the skin, then massages in a special lotion before applying hot shaving cream.
The warmth and the tingling sensation feel fantastic and I am totally relaxed. He gets out the old-time blade and sharpens it on a leather strop … this is the real deal! He starts shaving and it is a great close shave.
Suddenly – pfft! – half my mustache is gone!
My relaxation disappears in a microsecond. I think “Oh, no! What do I do now?” I have had facial hair ever since I could grow it!
Pfft! The second half of my mustache falls to the floor. With tremendous restraint, I don’t say anything because nothing can be done … even if I point out the mistake, the barber can’t put it back on again.
I resign myself to the inevitable and try to ignore it when my goatee is whisked away with a few flicks of the razor.
Quite frankly, I feel lucky to get out of there with my eyebrows!
This was classic assumption at work: he assumed a shave meant a full shave and I assumed that a shave meant he would work around the mustache and goatee. I didn’t provide that important bit of detail: leave the existing facial hair!
It didn’t take long to grow back my beard and mustache – but mistakes in business can be much more costly. To avoid assuming your way into a disaster of your own, be sure to do the following … always!
- Be specific in what you say. As you share information with others, avoid generalities. Don’t assume the other person knows or understands what you are talking about. Give concrete examples to demonstrate your points.
- Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. If you assume you know what is going on inside another person’s head or heart, that may affect what information you share with them. You’re not a mind reader; don’t make assumptions.
- Check for understanding. Don’t simply ask, “Do you understand?” (a closed question that will almost always result in a “Yes” answer, regardless of actual understanding). Instead, ask open questions such as, “What is your understanding of what we have agreed to?” “How would that translate into your job?” or “How would that work for you?” Even if you think you’ve been crystal clear, check for understanding.