Get Curious: Explore our Assumptions to Learn about Ourselves and Others
Part 1 in "Explore Assumptions" series
“I don’t have any assumptions. I’m very open-minded.”
“I can’t think of any assumptions I’ve made. I work hard not to make any.”
“I adhere to the old saying, ‘I don't want to assume and make an ass out of you and me’."
This is what I often hear when I ask others, “what are some assumptions you’ve made about other people?” An assumption is something accepted as true without proof. Generally, people don’t like to admit that they make them.
It’s popular to believe that assumptions are bad. Some would go so far as to argue that those who make assumptions are bad people. I disagree on both counts.
When we deny our assumptions, we deny ourselves the opportunity to get curious about what’s behind them. They represent windows into our subconscious thoughts. By exploring what we believe to be true, we become open to changing how we see ourselves and others.
I often get asked, “aren’t assumptions really just stereotypes?”
Stereotypes are widely held, fixed and oversimplified images or ideas of a particular type of person or thing. While assumptions can be influenced by stereotypes, they are rooted in our individual experiences and perspectives. Assumptions are personal.
We constantly see patterns in life and we unconsciously make mental associations, resulting in assumptions. They help us navigate the world and relationships more quickly. We make countless assumptions every day, most of which we’re not even aware of. They can be positive, negative and neutral, all of which are also relative.
This essay is the first in a series about the benefits of exploring our assumptions and the loss that comes from denying them.
I didn't set out to study assumptions. I accidentally discovered their power when I was experimenting with different ways to foster community collaboration.
Years ago, I created a cross-sector fellowship as part of my community engagement work for a tech industry association. We recruited fellows from diverse personal and professional backgrounds.
To build trust quickly, I asked thought-provoking questions to start each meeting. In the first cohort of the fellowship, I asked people to share a deeply held assumption that was since overturned.
I knew I had to model vulnerability. I couldn’t ask others to do what I wasn’t willing to do myself. I began, “a long time ago, I was diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Back then, it was considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD). I was devastated because I never thought I was someone who could get an STD. I assumed those with STDs were careless, reckless or dirty. I was depressed for over six months. My diagnosis changed my entire worldview. Only then did I understand that no one deserves to get sick. Sometimes the healthiest people get heart attacks. My experience changed the way I thought about health and access to health care.”
The phone line went silent. One person finally said, “you can’t see how my mouth is dropped open.” They began to share vulnerable, revealing, and unexpected stories. So, I continued to ask a variety of questions about people's assumptions. Over the course of the fellowship, people became more comfortable talking about their assumptions through practice.
Exploring assumptions, I learned, builds trust, self-awareness, empathy and curiosity. It requires that people feel safe to share. To this end, I’ve developed workshops that have helped hundreds of people get curious about their assumptions.
In this introductory essay, I share general lessons gleaned from studying how people talk about assumptions. To introduce each lesson, I pose questions to you as the reader. Later essays in this series will have a different set of lessons. I hope to provoke you into approaching your assumptions differently.
Socially acceptable versus socially unacceptable
Ask yourself: What’s an assumption you’ve made?
When I ask people to share their assumptions, I often see people cringe, tighten their body language, pinch their faces, look embarrassed, ashamed or turn blank.
Many tell me they don’t have assumptions. Sometimes they explain, “I come from a multicultural family” or “I have a (fill in non-white race) in-law” or “I grew up in a diverse neighborhood.”
And these justifications are shared without me even asking to share a race-related assumption.
The responses are indicative of the close association between assumptions and sexism, racism and bigotry. We fear being judged. So we deny that we also judge. If we can't acknowledge our assumptions, we can't learn from them.
Through conversations with hundreds of people, I’ve categorized assumptions as socially acceptable or unacceptable. “Acceptable” means people feel they can talk about these assumptions openly; “unacceptable” refers to the assumptions that trigger shame or embarrassment when shared. When I ask people about their assumptions, they often assume I’m referring to the socially unacceptable kind.
Here’s one I made I’m ashamed of: I read the headline of a young, Black Hip Hop artist who died. I assumed he died of a drug overdose. In reading his obituary, I learned he died of cancer.
What are some socially unacceptable assumptions you’ve made?
An acceptable assumption is relative. For example, in some circles, it is socially acceptable to assume that people who aren’t vaccinated are right-wing conspiracists.” In other circles, it’s acceptable to assume that people who are vaccinated are blindly following the government, which shouldn’t be trusted.
For the most part, I’ll explore the socially unacceptable assumptions, though a few essays in this series will delve into the socially acceptable because we have much to learn about those as well.
Sharing specific assumptions feels scary
Ask yourself: Can you be specific and give more details about that assumption you just recalled?
For those who don’t deny having assumptions, I often hear, "I make assumptions all the time, I can't think of one in particular right now." For those who are able to recall an assumption, they often start with a vague description. I usually have to ask clarifying questions.
Many people find it difficult to give detailed memories of assumptions they’ve made, especially of the socially unacceptable kind. It takes time to recall memories that we’ve actively suppressed or denied from embarrassment and shame.
I usually let people know at least a few days in advance that they will be asked to share their assumptions, so they can prepare. Even then, some cannot.
In contrast, it’s usually much easier for people to recall in specific detail assumptions made about them. They often convey those details with indignation, anger or frustration. In my experience, it’s rare that someone can’t remember a specific incident when someone made a wrong assumption about them.
From my workshops and conversations, I've witnessed the more willing people are to share socially unacceptable assumptions they’ve made about others in detail, the more trust they inspire. I facilitated a team session where the most junior ranked employer, “Bonnie,” vividly recounted a wrong and embarrassing assumption she made, after the executives gave vague, evasive answers. In the closing circle of the session, the same executives expressed admiration for Bonnie’s courage to reveal so much.
Being specific about the assumptions we make takes practice. In my assumptions workshops, I ask people to write down assumptions they have of other participants in the workshop. This exercise usually terrifies people. They are so afraid of offending someone that they default to being as generic and positive as possible. “I assume you are a friendly person!” and “I assume you like what you do at work!”
Discomfort indicates learning. I often encourage people to share an assumption that feels scary to share. I demonstrate by asking for a volunteer and then sharing my assumption of that person. I’ve said, “I assume you were in a fraternity” to an attractive young-looking man wearing a backwards turned baseball cap; “I assume you go to the opera” to an older, elegant-looking white woman; and “I assume you’re married to a white man” to an Asian American woman.
No matter how many times I’ve done this to model sharing assumptions, I always cringe. I can see shock on some participants’ faces. What’s interesting is while people fear offending others, they are often not offended themselves when they hear assumptions made about them. They’re usually curious about how they’re perceived.
“Wrong” does not equal “bad”
Ask Yourself: How do you feel when you realize the assumption you made about someone else is wrong?
I’ve found that people are more self-critical when we make wrong assumptions about someone else. We often equate “wrong,” meaning something factually incorrect, with “bad” or being socially unacceptable. An incorrect assumption is usually just a mistake. I often stress it’s not bad to have a wrong assumption; what’s bad is to act on an assumption we know is wrong.
Because we’re so afraid of the potential harm, many try to deny having assumptions at all. As a result, we censor our own thoughts.
Through one-on-one and group reflections, I’ve discerned the following reasons why it’s difficult for many people to share examples of times they’ve made a wrong assumption:
No one ever told them they were wrong
They are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit it
They believe open-minded people can’t make assumptions
For most of those people, the process of listening to other people acknowledge their wrong assumptions helps them understand that assumptions are widespread. Eventually, they start to acknowledge they too have made them.
I asked a tech executive what assumptions people made of him. He said, “People assume I don’t know anything about nonprofits. Then I tell them I’ve served on five nonprofit boards.” When I asked about when he made a wrong assumption about someone else, he couldn’t think of any. “This looks like I don’t have much self-awareness, doesn’t it?” he acknowledged. He had seen himself as the misunderstood victim. He then realized he too is capable of misunderstanding others.
Whenever I end a workshop, I ask people how they felt about hearing other people’s assumptions. They often feel less alone and have a more clear understanding that everyone makes assumptions and mistakes.
People start to believe each other more through the process of hearing others show courage through getting vulnerable. They build trust.
It’s also not uncommon for some to conclude, “I learned I shouldn’t have assumptions.” Many people still can’t distinguish between thinking a wrong assumption and acting on a wrong assumption, despite my repeated efforts to show otherwise.
The belief that having assumptions is bad is deeply ingrained in us. When we can’t distinguish between having a wrong assumption and acting on a wrong assumption, we are continuing to judge ourselves as well as others. Judgment prevents us from learning.
Exploring our assumptions, particularly the wrong ones, can feel liberating. It’s okay to be wrong.
I shared earlier, I used to think those who got sick usually deserved it. That only changed when I got sick. At first, I judged myself. And then I realized sometimes people just get sick, and no one deserves it. My assumption changed, and so did my understanding of myself and others.
When we stop judging ourselves for holding assumptions, we’ll also judge others less for theirs. When we risk sharing our assumptions, we’ll encourage others to risk sharing theirs. When we lean into learning, we’ll be able to see others’ assumptions as a source of learning, too.
One fellow in the program, a young Black man, described how often people made wrong assumptions about him, usually based on his race. In the beginning, he said, "I just don't have any assumptions. I just don't make them.” By the end of the fellowship and in the years afterwards, he told me, "I can't believe I used to think that I didn't make any assumptions. I make them all the time. How is it possible not to?"
Instead of trying to deny our assumptions, let’s get curious.
Read Part 2 in this series.