“Inner guidance is heard like soft music in the night by those who have learned to listen.”
― Vernon Howard
What is one habit we all have but rarely think of it as a habit?
It is the subject of the third personal agreement spoken about in the book, The 4 Agreements by author Don Miguel Ruiz.
Answer: Making assumptions.
Assumptions, what a funny word. What does it mean to assume other than the fact that it truly does make an ass of you and me when we do it?
Think of a time when you needed to hear back from someone and it took a long time to receive that call or note or email. Don’t lie, you jumped to an assumption or conclusion that the person you needed to hear from was blowing you off or not making your request important or just too busy for you. Were you right? In most cases there really is a good reason for not hearing back from someone you typically trust to be diligent with correspondence but as a species we tend to self-protect and so we assume the worst without evidence. Once we start down the road of thinking the worst of people it becomes a habit we can’t easily break.
Now think about a time when you needed to solve a problem or get through a difficult situation. If you are like me then you ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen here?” and try to prepare for that awful conclusion or work backwards toward a more pleasant outcome.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you are a negative person although to jump to that question first can make you feel negative. There is actually evidence now that shows that using this question when trying to solve a difficult problem is actually healthy and helpful. In their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. write:
“We believe—and new research supports—the idea that every emotion is useful. Even the ones we think of as negative, including the painful ones. We don’t suggest an extra helping of happiness or a dash of negativity; we suggest both. It is by appropriately flipping back and forth between these two states that you can achieve a balanced, stabilizing sense of wholeness. Simply put, people who are able to use the whole range of their natural psychological gifts—those folks who are comfortable with being both positive and negative, and can therefore draw from the full range of human emotions—are the healthiest and, often, the most successful.”
Even on the subject of happiness itself these authors have a lot to say when it comes to predicting or assuming what will make us happy or leave us feeling happy after an event or purchase:
“To put it succinctly, we humans are horrible at guessing how happy we will feel in the future, and yet we base important life decisions on these flawed predictions (assumptions). We purchase TVs, plan retirement, and say yes to dinner dates all because of an imperfect guess about how happy they will make us.”
In other words even if it can be proven that making assumptions could work in our favor it is fundamentally not to our advantage, yet we are practically raised to make it a part of who we are and how we function in the world.
The dictionary defines the word assume to mean:
- To think something is true or probably true without knowing that it is true
- To begin as a job or responsibility
- To take or begin to have power or control in a job or situation. Someone assuming the role of a leader or care taker, etc.
It is this first definition that we all have as a habit. The question then becomes why do we assume anything without first knowing or understanding the facts? When do we stop fact finding and decide that what we know is enough to believe we now know is truth?
The simple answer comes from the author himself of this third personal agreement that we all need to make within ourselves.
“Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” ― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
Courage. That really sticks in my gut. I never really paid too much attention to how much courage it takes to ask questions, to be vulnerable with courage in order to get clarity on something. When I think about it specifically now I can relate it to my children and their performance in school throughout the years. There seems to be an aspect of pride involved with asking questions and assuming to know something without facts or truth.
I asked my son, “What stops you from having the courage to ask questions when you don’t understand something?” His answer, “Sometimes it is not that I don’t want to ask a question, I just either might not want to know the answer or don’t want to hear what someone has to say or I might just want to figure it out for myself.” In any of these answers courage and pride seem to be at its heart.
Why is there such a stigma to asking questions?
In his book, A More Beautiful Question, author, journalist and innovation expert Warren Berger finds that “even though children start out asking hundreds of questions a day, questioning falls off a cliff as kids enter formal school. In an education and business culture devised to reward rote answers over challenging inquiry, questioning isn’t encouraged and is in fact sometimes barely tolerated.”
Mr. Berger talks at length about how teachers are discouraged from promoting questions because the curriculum each teacher has to teach does not allow for free questioning and time to explore the minds of the curious child. Teaching to the test is all there is time for. In an environment like that, Mr. Berger says that children learn very quickly that if a “right” question is not asked and a “right” answer not given then it is best to just sit and listen and not get too involved in the education.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ― Isaac Asimov
Author Warren Berger says,
“The Nobel laureate scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi came from a home where at least one parent encouraged the children to ask questions.” ”’ While other mothers asked their kids ‘did you learn anything today?’ my mother would say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’”
Scientist Hal Gregersen thinks parents can help their kids be more inquisitive by posing what if questions that help invite children to think deeply about the world around them.” Encourage kids to solve problems in a hands-on way through household tasks and chores. Most students have to do some work to resuscitate their childlike curiosity. The best way to do that is to start asking questions again, lots of them.”
In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes:
“We have millions of questions that need answers because there are so many things that the reasoning mind cannot explain. It is not important if the answer is correct; just the answer itself makes us feel safe. This is why we make assumptions. These assumptions are made so fast and unconsciously most of the time because we have agreements within ourselves to communicate this way.”
So if questioning falls of a cliff at a time of life when it should be greatly and primarily encouraged as a natural human virtue and right, and if our society has accepted that we are raised to be rote, mechanical bodies that are supposed to just do as we are told, no questions asked then how can we ever break the cycle of a bad habit like assumption?
“Ask a question” says Don Miguel Ruiz. “Make sure your communication is clear. When you don’t understand something, ask a question, don’t assume an answer or a rejection of your question.”
In other words take action and create the habit of asking questions in every situation about everything.
“As far as you can, get into the habit of asking yourself in relation to any action taken by another: “What is his point of reference here?” But begin with yourself: examine yourself first.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
To break this down even further author, speaker Byron Katie asks us:
“Can you absolutely know that what you are believing is true?” For me the answer is no most of the time. Once I get to a no then pride steps aside and I have no choice but to keep questioning and seeking more truth.
Here are some other ideas to help break the habit of assuming:
Increase curiosity: Every situation that comes along in our lives has 2 sides to it. To increase inquisitiveness and curiosity ask the opposite question of the situation you are facing. We automatically go to what our habits have become. If you always think the worst of a situation then train your mind to start thinking the best of a situation and as crazy as it sounds, vice versa. Training your mind to see all sides increases curiosity and expands the brain waves of problem solving.
Stop the gossip: Most people gossip in the negative. They talk trash about other people in order to be the one “in the know” and get the spotlight. It is not a good spotlight to have shine on you if you are building a reputation of being someone that gossips. Talking about other people when the person is not around is just bad form. When a group is gathering for a meeting and there is that free time before everything gets underway don’t fall prey to the gossiping. Try to steer the conversation away from gossip by talking about something neutral like a new song or TV show or asking the opinion of the people gathered around you about a book you read or a trip you are hoping to take.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes: This is empathy. What would you want someone to do for you if they saw you were in trouble or sad or lost? Our moods can change as quick as a wink. Knowing that, we also know that we are not in the presence of one particular person 24/7 and that alone means that we don’t have all the facts. Don’t assume you know what the issue is. Be available to just listen if that person chooses to share with you or just offer your support whenever that person is able to talk more about the issue.
Get Pro-Active: Don’t continue to dwell on all the reasons why you think someone is in a bad mood or having a hard day. Offer to help by listening, brainstorming ways to solve the problem toward a more positive outcome, or being a trusted friend. If you are the one assuming something about your own situation then journaling about it might help. Getting all the feelings out on paper instead of out at a particular person will lessen the intensity of the initial feelings. Lesser hostility leads to greater resolution. Another idea is to distract yourself away from the assumption by listening to your favorite music, exercising, cooking or reading a favorite book.
Be clear: We very often assume that certain key people in our lives should just know what we mean or what we are saying without us having to go into too much detail. STOP. Most people have the attention span and listening capability of a 4th grader. Be clear, speak at a normal tone of voice and not too fast, be specific about your needs or wants or directions, remember that your thoughts and ideas are not the only thoughts and ideas that are swirling around at that moment, allow room for participation in problem solving and approach the situation the way you would want someone to approach it with you.
Be the tourist: When my son was living in Florida I used to encourage him to be the tourist. Look at your everyday as if you are new to the area or to the situation you are in. What would a tourist do? How would a tourist solve this problem? Tourists have a ton of positive juices flowing through them because they see things through new eyes. Their open-minded point of view allows for so many possibilities to open up.
Don’t jump to conclusions: Conclusions without support of truth is another way of assuming. If someone you work with or a friend has a sour look on his/her face, don’t jump to the conclusion that it is because of something you did or work related. Step back, be kind, use compassion and ask that person what is wrong. Even if you know for sure what the problem could be you don’t know for sure all the aspects of why something is wrong.
“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion.” ― Julian Assange
Call to Action
Where can you start breaking the habit of assuming?
In what ways can you make an internal agreement with yourself to always seek curiosity?
How can you encourage others around you to embrace and welcome curiosity?