On Not Making Assumptions 1

Black donkey in front of adobe home with pink flowers blooming in a large vase, a colorful blanket on its back - making assumptions makes an ass of you and me

Making An Ass of You and Me

In my forties, during my chaplain training, I heard about the acronym A.S.S.U.M.E. It means that when we make an assumption, we make an ass of you and me.

Now that was a new idea. Was my teacher saying I shouldn’t assume I know what someone else is thinking? I was intuitive. I could feel these things. Besides, it takes less time to jump to conclusions than to listen to what someone has to say or ask for clarification. If I was anything, I was impatient.

Then I started visiting patients, and I discovered I had been fooling myself all this time. I might not have made an ass of you when I assumed I knew what you meant, but I sure made one of me.

Black donkey in front of adobe home with pink flowers blooming in a large vase, a colorful blanket on its back - making assumptions makes an ass of you and me

Assuming I Understood

I had just shared a verbatim with the other student chaplains in my group. A verbatim is as close to an exact rendition of a dialogue one has had with a patient as the student chaplain can make it, given that it is produced from memory. Along with the dialogue, we make note of our significant thoughts or feelings, analyzing how they impacted our responses. We focus on where we have messed up, what underlying issues influenced us, as well as noting the sweet moments of real connection and transformation.

What became clear for me in that particular verbatim was that whenever I made an assumption about the person in front of me, the conversation faltered, the patient withdrew. Because I thought I knew what was going on, I didn’t listen. I was not curious. It seemed I didn’t care. And perhaps I didn’t. What mattered to me, instead, was that I be right.

But I wasn’t right. I was wrong.

Sweet Moments of Connection

That didn’t mean my interaction with the patient was a total flop. When I looked for the sweet moments, I found some patterns. If I stayed interested, if I listened, if I asked clarifying questions, the patient opened up. Sometimes he even found a moment of peace.

In other words, when I did the opposite of making assumptions, the conversation flourished. The work was real and sacred.

Assumptions are a kind of shortcut. We hear something that sounds familiar in what a person says. A phrase or word catches us, and we think, “Oh, yes, I know what that is.” Since we’ve decided we understand, we stop listening. We don’t bother to wonder, ask questions, consider that this person’s experience could be different from what we expect. Maybe this person is talking about something surprising or confusing or their own. By making assumptions, we discount the other person, make her unimportant. What matters is not her experience, her emotions, her thoughts, but our own.

To stop assuming, we have to stop focusing on ours needs and think about someone else’s. That doesn’t mean we can stop paying attention to what’s going on in us. In fact, we have to get better at recognizing when we’re upset or bored or tense or angry or scared. We have to slow down, notice the thoughts that get in our way, the prejudices, the judgments. Then we have to care enough about someone else to believe there might be a unique truth in his words worth exploring, a truth that is this person’s alone, and we have to believe there is value in this truth, even if it’s different from our own.

New Agreements

This is hard enough in a professional relationship. In intimate ones, it can be harder. There, all our past wounds and fears get triggered. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, talks about the agreements we make with one another so we don’t have to face our past, so we can pretend that our hurt has nothing to do with us and everything to do with the other person. Because we’re rather be alone than wrong, because they are what we’re used to, we perpetuate dysfunctional relationships.

To do this, Ruiz explains, we agree to take things personally, for example, or act out people’s beliefs about us, no matter how crazy they might be. We also agree not to ask hard questions, and we agree that people who love us will know how we feel or what we want, without us having to tell them, even if this isn’t true. We agree it’s okay to “assume we are right.” This is so important, in fact, “that we will destroy relationships in order to defend our position.” [1]

If this is true, we need to make new agreements, which is the point of his book. One of those agreements might be to look at the facts, no matter how painful they are. We can recognize we’re afraid and look anyway. To do so is not as easy as it sounds.

Assuming Intention

When I visit with patients, it’s not uncommon for them to tell me a story of how someone did them wrong, ending it with a phrase such as, “She did that on purpose to hurt me.”

Depending on the situation, I might challenge that assumption. How does the person know? Could there be some other reason she did that?

Usually I get resistance. “Oh, I know her. She’s spiteful that way.”

There’s no openness to possibility here. After all, the patient can’t be wrong. That would be too painful.

So, all right, what if this woman did intend to hurt him? We do wound one another on purpose sometimes. But why would she do that? Is she a horrible person, someone to ignore, disparage, divorce, punish? Often, it seems, that is what the patient believes, even if he’s intent on staying in the relationship.

Yet what if the woman was responding to a perceived wrong, to a pain within her own heart? Does that not matter? And isn’t the patient, by withdrawing care and compassion from the woman, purposely hurting her, as well? If they ever want a caring, supportive relationship, they need to slow down, listen, and understand one another.

We need to do the same thing.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for our shame, sadness, and fear to run so deep we can’t bear to seek understanding, for we’re afraid the answer might hurt too much. We’d rather be lonely than hear what is on another’s heart, especially if we may have done something to make them suffer. We get defensive, argue, shut down, and turn away.

Ignorance of Our Own Intentions

Another reason patients give for not wanting to ask for clarification is that the person will lie. Or else, they say, the person doesn’t know his own mind. They think they know better what he thinks than he does himself.

Maybe they do. Some of us are ignorant about our own emotions. Growing up, we may have heard things like, “Oh, you’re not hurt,” when we’ve scraped our knee, or “There’s no reason to get mad,” when we’ve been chastised unfairly, or “Stop being shy and give Grandma a kiss,” even if we barely know her. We learn to question our own experiences. We lose touch with our inner truth. When we are so blind to what we feel and think, we know we wouldn’t be able to explain what’s going on inside us, so we figure there’s no point in checking things out with someone else.

Yet making assumptions does not help. If the person herself doesn’t know what she’s thinking, what makes us believe we know better? We’re not inside that person’s body or head.

So what do we do?

We can start by deciding to look for the truth. We can wonder about our own feelings, and we can ask questions such as, “Can you explain what you meant by that?” or “Can you tell me what you’re feeling right now?”

Exploring together, with curiosity rather than assumptions helps. If we seek an honest answer, we may be surprised by what we can discover.

Seeking Truth Wherever it May Be

Not only can we discover interesting things about other people, but we can learn things we have’t been willing to admit about ourselves.

For instance, the patient who blamed a woman for his hurt refused to accept any responsibility for the injury. He assumed he was a victim. Probably he was wrong. There are times when the wounded one is not responsible, such as in cases of abuse or rape or mass murder. Perversely, those who have been harmed for no reason at all may assume responsibility because then they don’t have to admit they were powerless. Truth can be hard to see, no matter what that truth is.

Thus, if we want to stop making assumptions about others, it helps to look at ourselves. If I had not been encouraged to explore my triggers and failings during chaplain training, I might have continued to assume I knew best. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to see myself clearly, and that has made all the difference.

Relationships that Can’t Be Mended

But what about people who lie outright? This makes relationships difficult. The trust needed for intimacy can’t flourish when lies are common. Not all partnerships work out.

Nonetheless, we may encourage lies, such as when we refuse to listen to the fears and concerns a person has, like the parent who doesn’t want to know that a child is hurt, or angry, or scared.

Also, when we make assumptions, we judge. When others feel judged, they defend themselves. Instead of exploring their underlying thoughts and feelings, they argue, and they may lie. Untangling the web of slights and jibes can be complicated. If we make assumptions at any point in the unraveling, we make more knots. Eventually, the whole thing has to be cut out.

So how do we stop making assumptions?

Just the Facts

First, we can seek to know the truth. Look at the facts. Ask what really happened.

Years ago, I was at a gas station where a white attendant filled my tank. At some point, a black man pulled up to a pump. Shortly after he did, a white man drove his car to another pump. The attendant took care of the white man without even acknowledging the black one. By that time, I had gotten out of my car to pay, and the attendant helped me. All this time, the black man was waiting.

Finally, he jumped out of his car, and started yelling at the attendant. His black girlfriend scrambled out after him, pulling on his arm.

The attendant started making excuses for his behavior. “I didn’t see you,” he claimed. “I’m sorry.”

Turning to me, the black man said, “You saw him. He ignored me because I’m black. You saw it.”

I said, “I saw that he didn’t serve you, but I don’t know why.”

Asking the Right Questions

Was that the right answer? I suppose not. But it did stop the black man. His girlfriend managed to pull him back into the car, where he stayed while the attendant filled his tank.

What was the attendant thinking? I have no idea. To throw out possibilities would be to invite assumptions, none of which are helpful.

What was the black man thinking? I don’t know that, either. However, I do know that I can’t imagine what it would be like to live each day being ignored, slighted, wounded, or threatened just because, as Austin Channing Brown put it in a letter she wrote to her child, “God kissed your beautiful skin and it blushed at the attention.” [2] We make so many assumptions about each other because of how we look or stand or talk or make eye contact, and those assumptions are hardly ever right.

To figure out what is right, to discover what is going on in the mind of a gas station attendant or a customer, we have to ask questions. I don’t know of any way around that.

We might ask, for instance, “What did you mean by that?” or “Can you help me understand what you were thinking?”

How we frame the questions, and what inflections we use, makes a difference. Then, once we’ve asked the question, we have to really listen, without assuming we know what the answer will be. We need to interpret less. Look and listen more. Let go of the need to be right, to defend our reality. Open ourselves to new ideas and possibilities.

Believing in Our Own Goodness

Vulnerability requires reciprocity. Often, we can repair relationships by asking more and assuming less. Sometimes, though, there is no relationship with which to work, and sometimes the assumptions that affect our lives aren’t our own, but someone else’s, such as the ones the attendant and the customer made about each other. We can’t control the assumptions others makes of us, though we can question them. When false assumptions are thrown at us over and over again, it gets exhausting to keep questioning. We’d rather give up the relationship.

Brown writes about the assumptions white people make about her and her people. There are so many ways we discount and minimize and refuse to see the other person as a separate being with dignity and individuality, regardless of race. When you add the dimension of skin color, things get even worse.

Brown’s book, I’m Still Here, is funny, poignant, kind, and tender. It is also expresses her deep sadness and disappointment in the white world. Even though she isn’t certain it’s possible, she calls white people to the table to reconcile. Her experience, though, is that even those white folks she counts as friends end up saying thoughtless or unkind things they don’t dare acknowledge because they want so badly to “believe in their own goodness.” [3]

This need to see ourselves as good keeps us from reconciling. We feel wounded, misunderstood. The story becomes about our intentions and our feelings, and if we’re white, we have the power to make it so.

Reconciliation

For white and black to reconcile, we must agree that reconciliation is not about making white people feel good about themselves, but “is about diverting power and attention to the oppressed, toward the powerless.” [4] We must stop assuming we have the answers. It’s time to listen to what we’re told, take it in, and care. Sometimes we have to accept another person’s anger without making excuses. We won’t always get it right, and that’s okay. We can, however, stop assuming we deserve to feel comfortable. Not all of us are enlightened all of the time.

I’m talking about race relations here. I’m also talking about every other relationship in our lives.

Not Making Assumptions

We’re always making assumptions. About strangers and politicians, we make assumptions. About children, spouses, co-workers, and grocery clerks, we make assumptions, and others make assumptions about us. These assumptions affect how we act, and those actions rarely reflect well on us. Distance, bitterness, and rage result.

It is not always safe to ask questions of those who hurt us, but this is the only way to reach reconciliation. Someone must risk wondering, asking, and listening. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Notice the assumptions we make that feed our ego. Seek our true thoughts and feelings. Honor our wisdom and our failures. In this way, we can feel good about ourselves without always having to be right or best or wise. Then we will be able to see the person in front of us as she is rather than as an extension of our own assumptions. We can heal our hearts and invite the healing of others. We can open up to compassion, kindness, and reconciliation. In this way, we and the world can become whole.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Ruiz, Don Miguel, The Four Agreements, San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen, 1997, 68.
  2. Brown, Austin Channing, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, New York: Convergent, 2018, 194 ebook.
  3. Ibid 205 ebook.
  4. Ibid 205 ebook.

Photo by Daniel Burka on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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