People, Assumptions, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

But I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me
Just how I should feel today. —New Order, Blue Monday

H ave you ever considered the bookshelf full of stories you take with you into your place of work, your classroom, or your kitchen? All of us are incredibly imaginative when it comes to creating our own realities. Often, we are particularly adept at fabricating someone else’s perceptions. In 1983, New Order released Blue Monday, a song that has always made me consider the complexities that occur in communications between people – “I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me just how I should feel today.” We experience this in all of our relationships and interactions. We see, hear, or anticipate another person through our own filter and finish their story for them. If we are somewhat effective at guessing, we are said to be “emotionally intelligent.” If we get the story wrong, we are insensitive, oblivious, ignorant, uncaring, or simply mistaken. Men, women, children, adults – it happens with all of us.

We see, hear, or anticipate another person through our own filter and finish their story for them.

As managers and leaders, we set direction, define objectives, clarify vision, and hold people accountable. For us, it is always clear because we see it in our minds. When we speak or write, it is clear for us because we know what we mean. However, I continue to find that no matter how clear I feel that I’m being in my communication, my words still get translated through the filter of my audience and they make them their own. This generally isn’t terribly problematic for things that are easily measured; clear metrics make communication fairly easy and expectations quite clear. Translation issues occur when our filter takes the words we hear and overlays them with our self-image, doubts, fears, hopes, or expectations. When we “make them our own,” those words morph into a different narrative – one that we’ve created. Quite often, one that isn’t real…until we make it real.

We are all aware of it, yet we continue to do it. Why? For one thing, we are blessed and cursed with the glories of higher intelligence. Reading a situation and anticipating possible outcomes is an incredibly complex capability and very necessary for our survival. The issue isn’t our ability to anticipate, the issue is in the assumptions we make in how we anticipate. Felix from the Odd Couple famously described for us what happens when we make assumptions – “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Our assumptions are based on how we see the world and ourselves. They are built upon the story we tell our self about everything we experience. When New Order suggested that “you’ll tell me just how I should feel,” they were describing our tendency to project our story onto another person – a story built upon our assumptions.

With time, our assumptions and how we apply them can become even more challenging. Over time, we create a large, carefully curated collection of assumptions and narratives. Our story evolves and we bring in new characters assigned to the roles necessary to fulfill that narrative. Yes, we build wisdom and our anticipation skills evolve as well. Unfortunately, much of our progress gets lost in the narrative we’ve written. We build a collection of baggage that taints much of the communication we experience with other people. When we harbor self-doubt, negativity, or fear, we tend begin to write a self-fulfilling narrative in our relationships and our lives. We assume all sorts of things about other people’s intentions, expectations, and sincerity. These assumptions frequently take us exactly where we imagined.

Over time, we create a large, carefully curated collection of assumptions and narratives.

What’s the answer? I’m afraid that a one way psychoanalysis won’t help much. You know and understand your filters much more than I ever will. After all, it is your narrative. However, I do believe we can cultivate some habits and attitudes for managing the challenges of our assumptions. If you need to assume, start with these:

  1. Assume the best intentions in other people. Yes, I know this is risky. Yes, I know you’ve been burned. But I also know that until you can give someone else the benefit of the doubt, you will not be able to overcome the gap between you. Start with a belief in good intentions and it might change the narrative. You can always change your mind later.
  2. Assume they mean what they say. Often, we look for hidden meanings. We like to “read between the lines.” This is such a source of problems in our communications with others. Sometimes, we need to just take what someone says “at face value.” After all, you can’t control their intentions but you can control what you do and say.
  3. Assume that there is common ground. When our narrative puts us at odds with another person, it inhibits our ability to build a constructive relationship. When we can find a point of intersection for our interests, that common ground can create a lot of positive energy and change the story we are telling ourselves (and the story they are telling themselves.)
  4. Assume that you are good, capable, and important. Now we get to the crux of the matter. The biggest barrier in our narrative is our own self image. It manifests itself in everything we do, say, or imagine. Self doubt appears in how we look at other people and how we hear their words or read their behavior. If you want to maximize your interactions with others, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about your self image. We wrap our sense of worth up with everything around us – once your acknowledge this, you can move on to giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. Change how you talk to yourself. Change the story you tell yourself. Write a happy ending and walk toward it.
  5. Assume that you will survive when they let you down. Have you been telling yourself another story as you read this post? The self-protective story reminding you that there is no way you are going to make assumptions that will give another person the chance to hurt, disappoint, or fail you? My final suggestion is that you take the risk anyway and convince yourself that you will survive. You’re going to be let down. You will overcome it.

Now you are free. You are free to take your story in your best direction. You are free to leverage all of your gifts and talents to do your best. You are free to fail and pick yourself back up again. Yeah, there is going to be some disappointment. So what?  Quit worrying about it and get on with living a full life. When we write our narrative with expansive thinking, positive energy, hope in possibility, belief in our self, and belief in other people, anything is possible.


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