I know you’re a kind and compassionate person. I am too.
But as human beings, both of us are regularly making assumptions about other people that can damage our relationships and reduce our interpersonal effectiveness.
Don’t judge yourself too harshly, though; our brains all work this way. But do take steps to try to correct it. Things will go much more smoothly if you do.
What are these two assumptions you’re making?
If you took a Social Psychology class in college, these may sound vaguely familiar…
“The Fundamental Attribution Error” — When we see someone do something, we’re likely to assume they’re behaving that way because of their personal traits (intelligence, personality, etc.). We tend to overlook the role the situation plays in influencing their actions.
“The Curse of Knowledge” — Once we know something, it’s hard to remember what it was like before we knew it. So when we’re dealing with others, we tend to assume they understand things the way we do.
Not quite with me yet?
Here’s a little more about each of these phenomena, how they might be hurting you, and what you can do to counteract these natural tendencies…
The Fundamental Attribution Error
(a.k.a., “That’s just the way she is.”)
Imagine that a colleague is showing up late, not getting her work done, and generally seeming disengaged and unpleasant. Consider the following possible explanations for her behavior:
- She’s an irresponsible and grumpy person.
- She’s juggling multiple roles and is under a lot of stress.
- She’s experiencing a major conflict with another colleague.
- Her rheumatoid arthritis is causing a lot of pain.
- She has a substance abuse problem.
Consider what your reactions would be under each circumstance. How would you think, feel, and behave differently if the reason is #2, 3, 4, or 5 rather than #1?
How you explain her behavior makes a big difference, doesn’t it?
For reasons #2-5, most of us would be at least a little sympathetic and probably inclined to try to do something to help make the situation better for her. Our interactions with her would be kinder and more constructive, more likely to elicit a helpful response from her and more likely to produce a win-win solution.
If you think it’s reason #1, though, would you be as compassionate and helpful?
I have to admit that I would not be. I’d probably go out of my way to avoid her when possible. I might start micromanaging or nagging her about things I needed from her. I’d certainly feel resentful toward her, and she’d probably eventually sense that resentment, even if I never verbalized it.
But if I’ve assumed wrong, and the real reason for her behavior is not #1 but one of the other explanations instead?
My responses would be counter productive, wouldn’t they? They’d probably just increase her stress and exacerbate the problem. They certainly wouldn’t do anything to help fix it.
Sadly, if we don’t stop to think about it, our natural tendency is to go for explanation #1. That’s the “fundamental attribution error”, and in one research study after another it’s been identified as our default way of explaining why other people do what they do.
Our first impulse (particularly living in an “individualistic” culture like the U.S.) is to think it’s about who they are, not about what’s happening to them.
Now let’s take a look at that other phenomenon I described. Then we’ll look at strategies for counteracting these two “assumption problems”.
The Curse of Knowledge
(a.k.a., “This is so obvious! What’s wrong with you?”)
In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath describe a fascinating 1990 experiment conducted by Elizabeth Newton for her dissertation at Stanford University:
(S)he assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped…
The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.
But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?
When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself — tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.
This same phenomenon happens to us all the time. Consider these examples…
- You’re a new employee. You got your orientation a few weeks ago, yet there are so many unspoken things you don’t yet understand about the company and no one has thought to tell you.
- Your organization’s IT guy is a big fan of Gmail (I am too, by the way!) and convinced your boss to switch everyone from Outlook to Gmail. However, the time that was allotted for training and transition is insufficient. The guy has been using Gmail for so long that he can’t conceive of how foreign Gmail initially feels to someone who’s never used it.
- After much discussion, your board has outlined some new goals and responsibilities for you as Executive Director of your nonprofit organization. You’re so immersed in this new way of thinking that you forget others in your office don’t fully understand what it means when you tell them you’re now supposed to be acting as a “collaborative visionary”. Consequently, many employees are frustrated that you’re spending time on things they don’t see as priorities.
- You’re in charge of fundraising for your nonprofit, but you’re having a hard time raising money. People just don’t seem to be connecting with your organization’s mission or understand why it’s so important — although it seems obvious to you and your colleagues.
The common thread with all these examples is this:
Once your head is immersed in a given domain — a company culture, an email application, a new role, your organizational mission — it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.
Knowledge is a good thing, yes?
But as this demonstrates it can also be a “curse” that can erect barriers between people and hobble our ability to communicate clearly on the very subjects we are most knowledgeable about.
So then what do we do about this?
Overriding Your Assumptions
The “fundamental attribution error” and the “curse of knowledge”. Both of these “assumption problems” represent at some level a failure to get inside others’ heads and see things through their eyes.
And no matter how empathic you are, no matter how compassionate and understanding, we’re all guilty of making these assumptions. It’s human nature.
So here are nine strategies for reining in those tendencies and circumventing the problems these assumptions can create for us:
#1: Be aware of the tendency. Just knowing we are predisposed to make these assumptions can help us stay vigilant and work to counteract them.
#2: Make your assumptions explicit. Identify for yourself what you’re assuming about others. That’s the first step toward holding a constructive dialogue to explore alternative explanations. Verbalize what you’re assuming others know about that thing you’re so steeped in and knowledgeable about. That’s the first step toward being able to explain it in a way that will mean something to them.
#3: Ask yourself a lot of “why” questions. Why might she be acting that way? Why else? Why is our mission really important to me? Why do I take these specific steps when conducting an intake interview? Why do I expect my staff to participate in our daily stand-up meetings?
#4: Look actively for alternative explanations. Are you frustrated by a colleague’s behavior? Ask yourself if there are pieces of knowledge you have and she doesn’t. Ask yourself if there are other things about the situation that could be influencing her actions. Ask yourself…
#5: Could YOU be the “situation” affecting the other person? Through our verbal and nonverbal communications, we can have a strong influence on others — and it can happen without us ever being aware of it. Sometimes your reactions to someone can “pull” certain behaviors from them. (An example would be if I expect you to be stuck up and so act coldly toward you, thus causing you to be cold to me in return — unfortunately confirming my original expectations.)
#6: Put yourself in their shoes. Consider: If I were in this situation, how would I feel? What might make me act that way? What might I find confusing about this if I were completely new to it too? What information would I need if this was the first time I was hearing about this?
#7: Avoid insider language. Code words. Acronyms. Inside jokes and references. We’ve all had experiences of being the outsider who can’t penetrate the meaning of these things in a conversation among insiders. Remember this experience, and monitor yourself to ensure what you’re saying is truly meaningful to the people with whom you’re communicating.
#8: Be concrete and specific. When talking to someone to explore the reasons behind their actions, give them specific examples about what you observed and the context in which it happened. When explaining something you’re very knowledgeable about, keep it simple and tangible. Provide stories or examples to illustrate. Think about what you might include if you were explaining it to a child.
#9: Verbalize your empathy. You’ve made a concerted effort to expand the way you’re looking at the situation — to consider new possible explanations, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you’re talking with other people, let them know. Give voice to your genuine concern and caring for them. (“You’ve seemed kind of disengaged since you started working here. I’m concerned about what’s going on for you. How can I help?” or “I know it can be hard to wrap your head around this when you’re new to it. What information would be helpful from me?”)
I hope there are some ideas and strategies here that you’ll find helpful.
And if you think this information would be useful to others, be a pal and share it with them, won’t you? You can use the buttons on the left side of your screen to share it on social media or email it to a friend. Thanks!