You and your assumptions

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“Don’t make assumptions.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that in my life. Instead of making assumptions about others, we’re supposed to “just ask.” When we’re making decisions, we should take nothing for granted. Is that a good idea? Is it even possible?

Assumptions aren’t always bad

A lot of the time those assumptions make things better. They streamline our decision making and allow us to get through our days without using up precious mental energy on routine things.

We simply can’t examine all our assumptions

The fact is that we simply can’t question or examine our assumptions. They’re mostly unconscious and the result of our upbringing, education, life experience and reading.

The challenge isn’t to avoid making assumptions. The challenge is to understand when your assumptions can get you in trouble. It’s to identify which assumptions you should examine and when.

Examine your assumptions when people aren’t acting like you expect

When you’re working in a different country or culture or company and people aren’t acting the way you expect, examine your assumptions. We’re talking about culture here. The culture of a group is the bundle of shared assumptions the members have about how people should act.

Examine your assumptions before committing to a big decision

When you’re about to make an important decision, stop and ask, “What are we assuming here?” This is especially important when you’re making a big change or a big bet or you find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

Bottom Line

You can’t examine all your assumptions, so examine the ones that can have the most impact.


The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

This book is a guide to how people in different cultures think and act. The visuals are incredibly helpful. Read the Epilogue first to get a practical overview. The read the book, then read the Epilogue again. Here’s the list of Meyer’s eight dimensions that define the culture map.

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top-down • Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
  • Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time

Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May

The book makes fascinating reading, especially if you like reading history. It’s about the uses of history precedent in decision making but the book and especially the Appendices are a treasure trove of techniques for any kind of problem analysis or decision making.

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What People Are Saying

Josh Dragon   |   02 Apr 2015   |   Reply

Nice post. I had to stop and really think about this one. I agree that most of us (myself included) assume that assumptions are bad. I think you are right in stating that we can’t examine all of our assumptions. I believe that one of the most needed times to take a look at our assumptions is when we are in the middle of a conflict with someone else. Considering ours and the other parties assumptions can help us navigate the conversation to a resolution.

Thank you for the good read.

Wally Bock   |   02 Apr 2015   |   Reply

Good point, Josh. That’s the perfect time to review assumptions because they may be at the root of the conflict. Thanks for the comment and kind words.