The Power of Assumptions

Assumptions.  Let’s discuss them for a moment beyond the traditional sayings (or musings of great men like Samuel L. Jackson in films such as “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”) What are they?  Can assumptions be good things?  How do they benefit or hurt us?  I hope to discuss these factors below.  The nature of assumptions is an important aspect of conflict resolution as a whole, and I think it best to define this topic and explore it further.

First, let’s put parameters on the subject of this discussion.  Without a definition it is extremely difficult to explore a topic. The Free Online Dictionary refers to the following for our purposes: “Something that is taken for granted or accepted as true without proof.”  This is a harsh way to describe an assumption, so I propose the following boundaries for the purposes of this discussion:

Assumptions are statements we perceive as factual, based on prior experience or other related stimuli, that serve as mental shortcuts for processing information we receive.  

Based on the above model, assumptions can be good things.  They can serve as aids preventing us from spending a massive amount of time processing information we already know.  As an example, if we see it’s raining outside, we assume we will get wet absent a rain coat or umbrella.  If a baby cries and displays rooting behaviors while wearing a clean diaper, we can assume the baby is hungry and needs to eat.  These assumptions are good.  They allow for efficiency in our mental faculties and prevent total sensory overload.

There are also bad assumptions based on the same paradigm.  As an example, “All Republicans are against women’s reproductive rights.”  This statement serves as a means of asserting the following experiences of those who uttered it:

1. I have met Republicans.

2. The Republicans I have met and interacted with are individuals who have expressed a “pro-life” stance.

3. “Pro-Life” people are individuals, who in my understanding, see a woman’s right to control her reproductive processes as wrong, therefore

4. I choose to perceive all Republicans as against a woman’s reproductive rights.

Another example: “People from the South are Bible-thumping racist hatemongers.” By uttering this statement, the individual is really saying the following:

1. I have interacted, or believe I have interacted, with people from the Southern United States.

2. The above described people with whom I have interacted have been either racist or individuals who carry strong religious beliefs.

3. I am against racism, and I do not find religion as a paradigm with which I agree.  Therefore,

4. I choose to perceive those from the South with whom I interact as racist and hyper-religious to a negative degree.

Based on the above analysis, I would further present the following argument:

Assumptions based on people and interactions with people carry with them the potential to be negative in nature, and therefore must be subjected to close scrutiny. 

How do we combat this?  I see the answer in asking ourselves why we carry that assumption through a “curious” attitude.  Instead of simply dismissing the person with whom we carry an assumption and reassuring our potentially destructive worldview, take the time to ask yourself the following:

1. Why do I have this assumption?

2. Is this assumption based on previous experience or outside influence?

3. Is this assumption worthy of closer scrutiny?

If you ask yourself those three simple questions, you might find yourself saving a lot of face and opening the doors to newer experiences with people on a meaningful level.

Let’s place this in the field of business negotiation. You are trying to get a restaurant to open on a day they are traditionally closed for a private business function.  The restauranteur is very hesitant at the bargaining table to do so, and repeatedly states he will only open his restaurant if it’s not “a logistical nightmare” and if the deal is something “where [he] can justify not giving staff the night off.”

You talk with your client, who says “The guy’s just interested in a number, and I don’t see where the problem is.  You’ve got what, maybe two to three servers who work at $2.15 plus tips?  And after that, maybe a cook or two that works for $8 per hour?  How much can that be?  After all, this restaurant isn’t in Times Square, for goodness’ sake.”

If you stop right there and offer a number based on those assumptions, you might wind up in a world of trouble. You might have neglected to see the “cooks” in question are actually an executive and sous chef who came from a larger metropolitan area specifically to better the restaurant in question and learn that particular brand of cuisine.  You might find yourself neglecting the amount of servers you need for your party, and their total wage rate.  Those “assumptions” your client makes may cause the restauranteur to walk from the negotiation table completely!

The better alternative to the above would be asking your client at the table “Why do you see things this way?  What leads you to the conclusion the restaurant pays its staff that amount?  Do we need to discuss this with the owner?  And what leads you to believe this is just about a dollar figure?”  If your client listens, and you open a discussion with the newer, “curious” tone, you’ve empowered yourself and the client with the ability to hit more points of interest, open a meaningful discussion, and get further into the negotiation.

Assumptions are useful.  But they are also limiting.  When you make one, expect it to be challenged.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just be curious.

–CLS

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