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Assumptions: Why Being Right Is Wrong

Submitted by on Monday, 12 November 2018

Being Right

While researching my new book What? I discovered that when listening to others, we naturally assume we understand what’s meant and don’t question that assumptions. The truth is, our brains are not set up to enable us to understand what Others tell us: the filters, the habituated neural pathways, the biases our brain uses to translate sounds into words into meaning preclude accuracy, leading to faulty assumptions. We actually only accurately hear some unknowable percentage of what is being said. Here’s what happens that makes accuracy so difficult:

  1. We only retain words we hear for approximately 3 seconds, and since spoken words have no spaces between them, our brains must also expend some amount of energy listening for breaks in breath, tone, and rhythm to differentiate words and meaning.
  2. Throughout our lives, the neural pathways we use when hearing others speak become habituated and normalized, limiting how we understand conversations as per our comfort and beliefs.
  3. On direct listening, our brain automatically and haphazardly deletes some unknowable portions of the message being conveyed that is foreign to our typical thinking.
  4. Our brain then takes what’s left over from the initial deletion and seeks an historic match in a potentially appropriate memory channel (that our brain deems similar from a previous conversation), and deletes whatever is divergent from that match.
  5. Our brain then takes the remainder from that deletion and filters it through our beliefs, values, filters, habits and memory.
  6. Whatever is left after deletions in steps 2, 3, 4 is what we adamantly assume we have heard.

A simple example of this just happened today when I was introduced to someone:

Joe: Hey V. I’d like you to meet my friend Sharon Drew.
V: Hi Sharon.
SDM: Actually, my first name is Sharon Drew
V: Oh. I don’t know anyone who calls themselves by their first name AND last name.
SDM: Neither do I.
V: But you just told me that’s how you refer to yourself!

Because a double first name was foreign to her, her brain used a habituated pathway for ‘name’, deleting two instances of correction (i.e. how Joe introduced us and my correction). She exacerbated the problem by then assuming – as per her habituated knowledge about names – I offered first and last name, again ignoring my name. She went on to further assume she was right and I was wrong when I corrected her. Curiosity wasn’t an option as her normalized thinking patterns about ‘names’ offered her no possibility of error. She believed what her brain told her and acted on the assumption that she was ‘right’.

ASSUMPTIONS RESTRICT AUTHENTIC COMMUNICATION

We all do this. Using conventional listening practice, using our normalized subjectivity that we’ve finely honed during our lifetimes, it’s pretty difficult to accurately hear what’s meant without making assumptions; our brains are just set up to routinize and habituate most of what we do and hear – it makes the flow of our daily activities and relationships easy. But there is a downside: we end up restricting, harming, or diminishing authentic communication, and proceed to self-righteously huff and puff when we believe we’ve heard accurately. After all, our brain tells us what it wants us to hear, doesn’t tell us what it left out or altered, potentially getting the context, the outcome, the description, or the communication, wrong.

Or we assume the speaker meant something they didn’t mean at all and then act on flawed information. In business it gets costly when, for example, implementations don’t get done accurately, or people are deemed prospects’ and put into the sales pipeline when it could be discovered on the first call that they were never prospects at all.

Assumptions cost us greatly, harming relationships, business success, and health:

  • Sellers assume prospects are buyers when they ‘hear’ a ‘need’ that matches their solution and end up wasting a huge amount of time chasing prospects who will never buy;
  • Consultants assume they know what a client needs from discussions with a few top decision makers while potentially overlooking some unknown influencers or influences, causing resistance to change when they try to push their outcomes into a system that doesn’t yet know how to change;
  • Decision scientists assume they gather accurate data from the people that hired them and discount important data held by employees lower down the management chain, inadvertently skewering the results and making implementation difficult;
  • Doctors, lawyers, dentists assume problems that may not be accurate merely because some of the symptoms are familiar, potentially causing harm – especially when these assumptions keep them from finding out the real problems; they also offer important advice that clients/patients don’t heed when the patients themselves assume their own ability to take care of themselves;
  • Coaches assume clients mean something they are not really saying or skewering the focus of the conversation, ending up biasing the outcome with inappropriate questions that lead the client away from the real issues that never get resolved;
  • Influencers and leaders assume they are ‘heard’ when offering reasons or rational behind behavior change activities, and blame the Other for resisting, ignoring, or sabotaging, when if approached from a Change Facilitation format first, people will be happy to behave in their best interests.

Using normal listening habits we can’t avoid making assumptions. The belief that sharing, pushing, presenting, offering ‘good’ (rational, necessary, tested) information will cause behavior change has proven faulty time and time again, across industries. But it’s possible to avoid the pitfalls of assumptions and hear what’s being meant – by taking the Observer/Coach role and listening for the metamessages rather than the story line or content (which is what our brains use to subjectively assume).

It’s the difference between being in front of a tree and noticing veins on the leaves (listening for content) while failing to notice a fire 2 acres away, vs being on a nearby mountaintop (listening for metamessage) noticing a fire in the forest, but not seeing the veins on the leaves. Both content and metamessage listening are necessary, of course, but at different times in a communication.

I contend we listen first in a dissociative way (Dissociative Listening – listening for the metamessage, what’s meant underneath the words) when new information, a new relationship, collaborative dialogues, or fine data gathering is necessary. Doing so makes it possible to listen in a part of the brain that doesn’t have the habituated neural pathways and filters that our normal listening involves. In other words, we won’t need to make assumptions.

In my book What?  there are chapters devoted to explaining how we make the assumptions we make, and how to resolve the problem. It’s an important skill set that we all could use. I don’t know about you, but I personally get so annoyed with myself when I make an assumption that proves wrong, and I lose the possibility of what might have been.

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Sharon Drew Morgen is an original thinker and thought leader. She is the author of 9 books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, and the Amazon bestsellers Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon Drew has spent her life coding systemic change and developing models for sales (Buying Facilitation®), healthcare, coaching, and leadership. For folks wishing to recognize their listening biases and assumptions, Sharon Drew has developed a listening bias assessment tool to get a good understanding of how, when, and where you make assumptions:
http://didihearyou.com/learning-tools/assessments. She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com