By Elaine Stirling
We all know the old joke about the dangers of assuming: “To assume makes an a-s-s out of u and m-e.” Whenever we hear it, the joke is usually followed by a moment of awkwardness, while one or more of us tries to assume the appearance of . . . well, no assumptions.
As with most pithy sayings, it hides a core of truth. Assumptions do affect the basic unit of society, which is relationship, otherwise known as you and me. While I may be the most learned, enlightened creature in the room (hasn’t happened yet, but it might!), what I think about you will affect my ability to share the knowledge that could make life better for all of us.
When the best of our messages alienate, anger or otherwise fail to connect, despite good intentions, the problem may be at the core of our thinking and belief systems. These systems, like any good plumbing, are invisible. If I were writing this article in 1950, I’d continue the analogy of hidden assumptions with, “You don’t think when you turn on the tap about where your water comes from. You trust it’s going to be there.” In 2010, however, we do think about water, soil, and where our energy is coming from, so maybe we need to revisit our plumbing.
Every one of us believes; we’re hardwired for it. Some beliefs are passed down by family or culture; others, we acquire through trial and error. These beliefs, which I’m going to call assumptions, are sedimentary; they accrue as we develop our sense of self. The funny thing is, the deeper layers, while invisible to us, can glare like neon to the rest of the world. The more we care about something—like the future of this planet—the further away our audience can seem. Or the deeper the fracture lines between “those who think like us” and those who . . .
I didn’t have to finish that sentence; we all know how it ends. The reason we know is because it stems from a collective, outdated set of assumptions that divides humanity from humanity, that places some of us above and some below. These assumptions sit deep within us. Not because they’re right or workable, but like limestone, they have accrued and taken on the appearance of solidity. Which is why, even as deeply caring communicators, we begin messages with:
The oil companies are . . .
What politicians don’t seem to realize . . .
The good news about assumptions is that they can be rewritten. The better news is, there’s no time involved. You don’t have to pass laws or march with thousands, although, of course, these events may happen. All you have to do is remember in the instant before you speak or write a word that despite our differences, we all walk the same planet. We are all going to leave it one day, and we can’t take anything with us.
From that reality, a revised set of assumptions might look like this.
• Everyone wants to live a good life.
• Everyone wants to do a good job.
• The customer, colleague or investor is a person no different from me.
An article about oil companies, then, might begin from a place of appreciation for the men and women who risk their lives on oil rigs because they have families to raise. Revised assumptions help me remember that collective thought changes only when individuals think differently, and that my opinion about politicians or any group, for that matter, isn’t actually thinking.
By working from a deeper set of assumptions, you may find, although you won’t know unless you try, that people begin to listen to you differently. We’ll move in closer so we can hear more. Next thing you know—you, me, all of us, we’re changing the world.
Elaine Stirling is the author of The Corporate Storyteller, a teacher and communication consultant. Her clients include international banks, nonprofit agencies, hospitals and top-tier business schools. She attended the University of Toronto and Laurentian University where she received her BA in Political Science, International Relations. She is currently getting the hang of Facebook. More information can be found at: http://www.elainestirling.com/index.htm.