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How a Lesson From My 6th Grade Teacher Can Improve Your Communication

I don't remember many moments from my sixth-grade year, but the pearl of wisdom shared by my teacher one afternoon has stuck with me all these years later. In response to a comment from one of my classmates, our teacher stopped in the middle of class, walked up to the chalk board and wrote the word "ASSUME" on the board. He then stated, "Kids, never assume. Do you know what assuming does?" We all just sat there, cluelessly shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders.

He then proceeded to draw a dividing line down through the word ASSUME after the second S and then another line after the U, followed by the declaration, "Assuming makes an ass out of you and me."

At the time, I didn't recognize that brief educational sidebar for the integral life lesson in communication that it was. As an adult reflecting back on that moment, however, I can appreciate the significance. (Also as an adult looking back I find it a bit disconcerting, albeit a bit humorous, that our teacher openly used the word "ass" in our classroom...but it was the '80s...)

Aside from making an arse out of two people, why is assuming so detrimental to effective communication? The quote by William H. Whyte expertly sums it up:

"The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it."

Too often we assume we are communicating with others, but really we are missing what one another is trying to convey.

We assume people know how we are feeling, and/or we assume we know how they are feeling. We assume people have understood what we've shared, and/or our wants, needs, and expectations. We also assume that we've understood another person's perspective.

As we've learned, however, assuming is a dangerous game. So how do we avoid the assumption trap? By taking a cue from motivational interviewing and using these techniques:

1. Reflect back what you've heard.

You don't have to stick with the cliche "So, what I hear you saying is..." (although you can), but using reflective statements and paraphrasing what you've heard is a great way to ensure that you've understood what the person is sharing. Here are some alternative reflective statements you can try:

  • "I think I understand, but just to be sure..."

  • "So, tell me if I'm on the right track..."

  • "Just so I'm clear..."

  • "So, if I've got this right..."

  • "It sounds that right?"

Use the phrases/options that feel natural to you, and switch it up - you don't have to use the same phrasing every time.

2. Summarize the conversation.

As you are wrapping up the conversation, summarize the main points/themes to once again ensure everyone is on the same page, and help reinforce what has been discussed.

  • If you've given a directive, summarize your expectations for clarity (or ask the other person to convey their understanding/summary of the plan)

  • If you've set up a goal or action plan, summarize the steps to be completed

  • If you've divvied up work to be completed, recap what each person will be doing and when

Don't assume other people can read your mind (they can't) and don't assume you are able to read other people's minds (you can't). It's better to seek clarity, reflect back your understanding, and summarize the key points of the conversation.


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