We humans regularly make assumptions. I would venture to guess none of us go through a day without making at least one assumption. The Oxford Dictionary defines an assumptions as, “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”
Danger of Assumptions
Assumptions can be minor inconveniences as my exchange above shows. When unrecognized and unanalyzed, assumptions can also lead to major conflict between individuals, people groups, and nations.
I highly recommend watching a fascinating documentary titled Accidental Courtesy chronicling the efforts of a black man, Daryl Davis, to meet members of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis, a talented black musician and actor, began his association with the Klan by accident. His initial conversation with a Klan member left him wondering how anyone could hate him without ever having known him. To find the answer, Daryl pursued relationships with Klan members. As Davis developed these relationships, some 200 Klansmen revised their assumptions about Davis and blacks, and then left the Klan.
The conflict between races is well known in the United States. The documentary briefly highlighted the assumptions within races that also lead to conflict. At one point a Klansmen calls other white people who don’t agree with his point of view white ni***. In another scene black men express their disbelief and utter contempt for Daryl’s attempts to convert Klansmen. Whenever we make assumptions about what other people think and how they view the world, we put ourselves at risk. At best the risk in misunderstandings, at worst we risk conflict, confrontation, and hostilities that can lead to injury and even death at the extreme.
The first step to change is always recognizing what the issue is. Assumptions can be hard to get a handle on because assumptions are things we take to be true without evidence. Because we believe the thing is true, there is little that prompts us to question the thing we believe to be true. We can begin exposing our assumptions by paying closer attention to our thoughts. Anytime we make up reasons to explain a situation or behavior, we are making assumptions.
For instance, suppose you are at your local coffee shop. As you sit enjoying your favorite brew for a few quiet moments, a friend you haven’t seen in several years walks in, seems to look at you without recognizing you, orders a coffee and heads out the door. Trying to explain such behavior can lead us to all kinds of erroneous places.
- She’s always been a snob.
- That was rude. See if I say hi next time our paths cross.
- She’s so two faced. I knew she didn’t like me.
If we knew the actual story, we might discover our friend is dealing with the sudden death of her husband. Perhaps was unexpectedly fired from a job she loved. It could be that a child was in a severe accident and is clinging to life. There are a myriad of possibilities that could logically explain the apparent snub more satisfyingly than our own rush to judgment based on assumptions.
Ask Rather Than Assume
One of the easiest ways to combat assumptions is to ask questions. The answers allow us to replace assumptions with facts. Often in the process of asking questions, we discover perspectives that are entirely different than our own. Such differences can challenge us to evaluate our own perspective and in doing so help us to become better, more understanding and more compassionate individuals.
As Daryl Davis discovered, it can even be quiet enlightening to ask other people about their assumptions of a given situation, person, or people group. The more we understand each other, the less judgment we have and more mercy we extend.
Presume Positive Intentions
I have had the terrible habit of ascribing motives to people when they failed to meet my expectations. I have had all kinds of conversations in my head giving the other person a piece of my mind. In these conversations I always assumed the worst of the other person.
All that began to change when I read that most people act in ways that get their needs met, just as I would. Seldom are people simply out to get me. The article encouraged me to presume positive intentions about other people. As I put that advice into practice, my negative assumptions decrease, the ugly conversations in my head disappear, and I am more at peace with others and myself.
The Business Dictionary states assumptions are dangerous when accepted as reality without thorough examination. We decrease the possibility of danger and conflict and increase our own peace and well being when we recognize our assumptions and replace them with truth and compassion.