Check your assumptions. That is this month’s tip. When you do not ask questions with curiosity, when you do not seek to learn more, when you assume you know what the other person will say or do, that leads to misunderstandings, errors, and underperformance.
In January and February, the coaching tips focused on listening. One of the key barriers to taking a coach-approach to people management, collaboration, and internal coaching is making assumptions. Thus, the tip this month is to Check Your Assumptions.
What are assumptions?
When you believe you already know what another person thinks or may do in a situation, without first asking them, that is an assumption. Assumptions are usually based on one’s past experience. But, most often those past experiences are one’s own and not the other person’s experiences. Furthermore, things change. So even if you have recently asked the person their point of view or what they would prefer, that does not necessarily mean that status quo is still in play.
Our assumptions are influenced by our own experience of the world and our personal preferences. Each person has their own experience and preferences. While there may be some “norms” within common groups of people, such as people from a particular region of a country talk with a different pace, that may not be the case for everyone from that particular region.
In a work setting, making assumptions about another person’s preferred mode of communication, approach to a project, or opinion on a market opportunity, can lead to unintended negative consequences. While it would be unproductive to ask each person the same question each day, the opposite it usually the case: we never pause to ask someone their preference.
What are the risks of assumptions?
- Misunderstandings and interpersonal conflict
- Errors and underperformance
- Unintentionally taking away power from another person by assuming you know their point of view and not giving them the opportunity to express their opinions
All of the above and more lead to disengaged team members, negative team culture, lower revenues, and more.
This tip is not only relevant during a month when we are inviting action in support of greater gender equity in the workplace. It is always smart to Check Your Assumptions.
How to Check Your Assumptions in 3 Simple Steps:
- Catch yourself assuming what another person would say or do in a particular situation.
- Ask that person an open question to invite their input.
- Then check your assumption: did you have it right all along, or did you learn something new?
The important nuance to Step 2 is to ask an OPEN question. Not a yes/no question. And not a leading question. Ask an open question.
Let’s say you think you know your colleague’s preference on who presents specific content at an upcoming client presentation. Catch yourself assuming you know. Set the context, then ask an open question.
“Mariah, do you have a minute? I’d like to ask about your preferences for who presents at the upcoming client presentation.”
Follow the context setting with an open question.
“What are your preferences for ‘who’ presents ‘what’ for the upcoming presentation?”
Note how this open question is different from the following question:
“Do you want me to present the intro and Alex to present the closing?”
A question that begins “do you” is a yes/no question.
The “do you” question above is also a leading question because it suggests a possible answer in the wording of the question: in this case two answers are included. (1) “me” presents the “intro” and (2) “Alex” presents the “closing”.
The above example may seem to be rather benign compared to situations with riskier consequences, but it does ensure that Mariah is given the opportunity to share her opinion and have a voice is the decision that is made about who presents.
Try it! Check your assumptions this week before sending messages, making decisions, or communicating on behalf of a team member with others. As a result, you may be surprised what you learn and how asking open questions can be a stealth tool for ensuring greater equity while supporting greater engagement in the workplace.