23 March 2023

How to Overcome the Annoying Assumption of Knowing

Effective Conversations, Outsmart Your Brain Tips.

If you already know what someone is thinking, there is no opening for learning.

I have two friends who have a habit of finishing my sentences before I do. Besides being an annoying habit, they are wrong most of the time.

Their brains may have a purpose for doing this. They may be acting out of an insecurity or they just think too fast. Regardless, I know they are not listening. I know they can’t read my mind. No matter how well they think they know me, they don’t know what I want or how I see things until they hear me out.

Assuming you know what people want and how they see a situation is a common bad habit of coaches and leaders. Even if you don’t interrupt people to finish their sentences, your assumptions make you think you know what they mean which is often a mistake. You might sense the big picture but not important details. The results won’t reflect what the person wants.

The assumption of knowing – thinking you know what people mean and want – without fully listening and ensuring you agree on what they really want, can hurt your relationships. Neurobiologist Steven Rose pointed out in The Future of the Brain (2005), a snapshot of the brain’s current state is meaningless unless we know the entire life history of that brain’s owner – including the social context in which he or she was raised.

An assumption may be the source of the conflict
I’ve seen the assumption of knowing create conflicts on teams that think they are aligned around a clear vision but in truth, have very different pictures of what the implemented solution will look like. Not being aligned around a clear vision of the outcome everyone is hoping to achieve will sabotage cooperation. It is difficult to agree on priority of goals and allocation of resources. The team devolves into a group of people giving status reports in the room and complaining about each other outside of the room.

In one-on-one conversations, when there is no agreement on the meaning of key words and requests, and no agreement on what the end results should look like, leaders can’t meet expectations because their actions won’t align with what employees or colleagues want. Nobody ends up feeling understood.

Coaches are required to clarify and agree early in the conversation on what clients want to create or change to limit assumptions about where to go with the session. This outcome can shift and change as they address what has been getting in the way of making the changes. Identifying and sharing the new picture of what clients express they want to create or change becomes the measurement of progress toward finding a way forward by the end of the conversation. This is a core coaching competency. Yet even the meaning of this competency is often misunderstood. If there is no clear agreement on what clients really want instead of what is happening now, they may enjoy talking about their problems but the actions they agree to take at the end of session will probably be forgotten when facing the same or similar situation going forward.

If what the client declares they want more or less of is vague and unobservable, such as “to have more confidence” or  “to feel more motivated when I wake up,” the coach needs to ask the client what does confidence or feel motivated mean to them and what will change when they have these feelings. When the coach plays back the clarified picture to confirm what the client sees as a desired outcome, the coach and client will have an agreement with fewer or no assumptions. The coach can then focus on what needs to be resolved to move toward this vision.

The International Coach Federation says if the client’s desire – what they want for themselves by the end of the session – is vague, ambiguous, and imprecise, it doesn’t matter much what the coach does next because there is no solid direction for the coaching to take. The agreement frames the conversation.

They might have an assumption, too
An action, a decision, a plan, or a better understanding is not an agreement on what the conversation will be about. What will the action, decision, plan, or understanding give them once they have it? Once you both are clear on what they want as an end result, the most beneficial and feasible decision or plan will be easier to discover.

To come to an agreement of what the client or employee really wants, let them tell their story describing how they see the challenge they are facing today. Ask them to give you the meaning of the key words they use so you can both clearly see what is on their mind. Summarize what you hear they want that they don’t have now, and why it’s important to them. If they say they want to know what to do, to figure out, or to understand better, consider asking these questions:

  • (Action) If you make the right decision or lay out a plan you feel good about, what would you have as a result?
  • (Topic) If you had clarity on what to do to be a better leader; connect with others better; handle yourself in meetings more powerfully, what would you achieve?
  • (Understanding) What would understanding the situation, or clearing up your mental confusion give you?

The answers will help define both the direction of your conversation and the milestones to measure progress.

Whether you are a leader, coach, team member, or colleague, the more you give up the habit of already knowing what someone means or wants, the more you will connect with them. Stay curious and confirm what you think they mean and want. They will feel seen, heard, and valued.

Written by Marcia Reynolds


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