How to Communicate Without Making Assumptions

I remember when I left my first job.

I had been back-stabbed.  My bosses had gotten into a tiff, with me caught in the middle.  My co-workers had turned on me.  I was innocent, and yet the world had gone against me.

It was a whole lot of drama, and I was ready to leave it.  So I did.  I moved away.  I moved 1300 miles away.

And, 9 month into my new job, it was happening all over again.

I was having hushed conversations about who I could trust.  It was being implied that people were talking about me.  I was feeling very confused about what my boss expected.  I started talking to people, trying to figure out what side they were on.  Who could I trust?  Who was a backstabber?  It got really complicated, as I tried to sort this out once again.

Seeing this work situation one time made sense.  I got into a toxic workplace, and the kindest thing I could do for myself was to leave.  But seeing it twice?  There had to be something going on, and it had to be going on inside my head.  There was no way I could be the underdog twice, on opposite sides of the country.

And sure enough something was going on.  I learned that I was making assumptions, and lots of them.  I was guessing what people wanted, and I was trying to “read between the lines”.  I was trying to get the obvious points that I should be getting from what people said.

I was guessing, and it was burning me.  My past was repeating itself over and over, due to my guessing.

Because what is backstabbing, really?  It’s people acting to draw attention away from themselves, because they feel threatened.  Why do people talk to someone in authority before talking to you?  Because the may be assuming that you won’t listen.  Or they may be afraid that you are going to work against them.  Or they may be trying to draw attention away from themselves.

The only thing you can really know is that you really don’t know.  Making assumptions is merely guessing, and real communication can’t happen if you are doing that.

So much of our communication–at work, at home, and in relationships–is based on assumption.  We guess what the other person in thinking and what they want.  We are embarrassed to ask what they really want, and what their intentions are.  We think that everybody else just knows.  We thing that it should be so obvious to us, and yet we don’t know.  And our relationships are suffering because of it.

How can you communicate without assuming?  By being curious.  When we were children, we wondered about all kinds of things, and asked questions all the time.  But somewhere, we decided that everyone “got it” more than we did.  We became embarrassed to ask questions, to not be able to read someone’s mind.  Somehow, we lost that curiosity and that confidence to ask the questions.

For an example, consider this conversation in a marriage:

Sara:  I really am tired of doing so much housework.

Bill:  Are you saying I don’t help out enough?

Sara:  Yes!  I have to do everything, while you sit on the Internet!

Bill: Well, I’ve had a stressful day!

Sara:  You’ve had a stressful day?!  Do you have any idea what I’ve been through?

Bill:  Just let me relax.

Sara:  Fine!  But don’t expect me to talk to you later tonight!

Let’s take a look at this conversation.  What if Bill had asked Sara a question, instead of assuming she was angry that he hadn’t done housework?  What if he had asked her about herself?  He could have said, “Why do you say that you’re tired of doing so much housework?” And she could have replied that she is tired after being at work all day, and just wants to relax and not worry about the house.  This would have opened up the conversation to problem-solving, so that Bill and Sara could have figured out a way for both of them to unwind, and for the housework to still get done.  There was no need for anyone to be on the defensive.

And what about my situation at work?  Let’s go back to the first time I thought that I was stabbed in the back.

My boss said, “How is team teaching going?   I’ve heard it isn’t going well.”

Instead of getting defensive, I could have asked what he meant when he said it wasn’t going well.  I could have assumed less, and found out where my co-workers were misunderstanding, and–perhaps more importantly–where my boss was misunderstanding.

When you are working to communicate with someone else without making assumptions, there are two questions that can be infinitely helpful.  You may want to consider questions beginning with things like “Why are you saying that…”  Be sure to use the person’s exact words, so that you avoid any potential misunderstandings. This leads them to examine WHY they have said what they did, and this helps to clear up any assumptions that you may be making.

There are so many times in my job, both in the past and in the present, when I could have asked those questions and better addressed the issues I was facing.

There are so many times in marriages and in relationships, when we could prevent fights just by asking for clarification.  Curiosity is a lost art, but it is one that we need to rediscover, if we want to be successful in our work, our relationships, and in life.

So next time that you are faced with a conflict, you can choose for it not to be a conflict.  Choose to be curious, to ask questions, and to gain a true understanding of where the other person is coming from.  You will help them to think about what they are saying, and you will help yourself to better understand the other person’s intentions.

How can you be curious in your life?

Bethany blogs at Online Life Coaching, where she also offers personal development e-courses and individualized coaching sessions to help people reach their full personal and creative potential!


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

One Response to How to Communicate Without Making Assumptions

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