A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who works for a big investment bank. He’s always struck me as an intelligent and considerate person, so it doesn’t take much effort to listen to him when he’s explaining his thoughts on something. This friend is reasonably high up the food chain of an international private bank and as such, gets access to a lot of high-quality training and mentoring opportunities. Earlier in the day, he’d attended the latest training session put on by the bank, which was on effective communication.
I’d like to think I’m a reasonable communicator. I understand the importance of adapting to my audience, using emotional intelligence and actively listening wherever possible. Of course, there’s always room to improve, and my friend was about to open my eyes to something I’d not considered before.
When I sat at the table, he walked up and put a piece of paper in front of me. On the paper was the image you see below you. He asked me to imagine that I was his boss and that I’d tasked him with painting the line on the road. He asked me to tell him what my response would be to seeing that image.
I looked at it for a moment and immediately asked, “why didn’t you move the tree?”.
“Is that your only question?”.
“Well, I can’t think of anything else? Perhaps I’d ask why you didn’t paint under the tree?”.
As it turns out, these are the questions that 99% of us would ask when in this situation. We automatically assume that the wonky line is an avoidable mistake. In fact, most people wouldn’t even take this approach but would jump straight into criticising or belittling the person that had done this. It seems obvious to say that we shouldn’t belittle others, but my friend was driving at something specific.
Upon looking at the picture, I had automatically made assumptions about the situation. In our fictional situation, I had tasked my friend with painting a straight white line along the side of the road. I hadn’t stopped to consider how heavy the tree was, or if our Health and Safety policy allowed him to move the item unaided. I hadn’t asked whether the tree fell during painting, or if some other incident occurred and caused my friend to swerve.
Upon realising this, I tried to explain that being a reasonable person, I would, of course, give him a chance to explain himself; but my friend explained would now be more likely to become defensive about his actions, sensing that perhaps my intention was to criticise.
We all make assumptions about situations we encounter. The longer we live, the more confident we become in those assumptions, allowing us to make quicker decisions, but is this a good thing? According to the course that my friend attended, making assumptions during a conversation can be detrimental to effective communication. By presuming we know all the facts, we can create adverse reactions and miss important information.
It might sound obvious, but how often do you ask questions during a conversation? If you’re thinking ‘not often’, then you’re not alone. The course my friend attended suggested that most of us assume we know the pertinent information on an increasingly frequent basis as we age. If this is true, we’re potentially missing hugely important information thanks to our lack of questioning.
Forming assumptions about a situation can often lead to negative reactions during a conversation. If the person you’re talking to feels as though you’re not listening to what they say, they can become aggressive and dismissive in return. Instead of communicating effectively and learning from the people around you, you’re just reinforcing what you assume to be true – creating an echo chamber in which you can’t hear your own mistakes.
Like me, you might not realise what your assumptions are; they might be almost instinctive. Instead of shrugging your shoulders, challenge yourself to question more. When you have a reaction, ask yourself why. When you see something, ask how it might have occurred. Rediscover your curiosity, and with it, your ability to be an effective communicator.