Avoid Catastrophe, Make Fewer Assumptions

The danger of our assumptions

By Angela Noel

July 9, 2018

More than once I’ve been dead wrong about the reality of a situation for one simple reason: Instead of asking questions, I made assumptions. Though I detest this in myself, my sphere of influence is relatively small. Thus, I can do little harm. But, the same cannot be said for others in positions of power. Their failures to question assumptions can lead to disasters, as illustrated by Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War.

In the documentary, James Willbanks, an army strategist, said of Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, “When McNamara wants to know what Ho Chi Minh is thinking he interviews himself.” I found Willbanks’ words chilling.

Assumptions carry us too far--even into war
In 1968, President Johnson leans in at a senate hearing, with Robert McNamara on his right. Later, McNamara would become disillusioned with the war effort and counsel the President to end it.
Gold versus Platinum

At first glance, it seems logical to “interview oneself” in an attempt to understand the actions of others. The Golden Rule with its biblical roots teaches: Do to others what you want them to do to you. Clearly, to understand what another person might want, I should think about what I would want in a given situation and act accordingly, right?

Or maybe not. Dave Kerpen wrote about the so-called Platinum Rule in his book The Art of People. It states: Do to others what they would want done to them. Others like Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, and Dale Carnegie had all criticized the Golden Rule before Kerpen came on the scene. But the notion that assuming we know what others want through the process of interviewing ourselves persists.

Our own internal assumption-generating machine gleefully spits out answers after effectively consulting our own tastes, perceptions, and desires. This machine creates a truth we both can and want to believe–a phenomena author and psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls cognitive ease.  In effect, by only interviewing ourselves instead of putting the energy into understanding the motivations and worldview of others, we manufacture the most dangerous echo chamber of all–it lives between our own two ears.

I Assume Too Much

For example, I attended one of several scheduled privilege walks at my former job. A privilege walk exercise aims to bring awareness to various aspects of participants’ experiences. It shows how different variables outside of their direct control may have impacted their path in life. Certain group of people, I assumed, avoided events like these due to a fear of being shamed for being what they could not help but be: white and male. When I attended the event, most of the people in the room were women. White men, just as I had suspected, feared to attend. I brought this concern up to a more senior manager who had participated at the event.  He happened to be a white man. I asked him if he thought other men had intentionally avoided the event. And if so, could something be done to encourage them to attend?

What Is Privilege?

This senior manager took my question seriously. He visited a second and then a third scheduled walk. Later he told me he’d observed the almost equal ratio of men to women in the other events. Our specific date and time had been the anomaly, not the rule. Upon reflection, I realized I had already made up my mind that something needed to be done to encourage those absent white men to participate. The manager, however, did the exact right thing by seeking evidence, rather than reacting to my (or his own) perception.

Let the Evidence Tell the Story

This manager may have interviewed himself, questioning how he felt about attending the session, perhaps examining his decision making process. But he didn’t stop there. He let my perception influence him enough to open his eyes to a different possibility. But he let the evidence tell the story. In fact, I see this same pattern in many leaders I admire.  The Dalai Lama for example likes to quote Buddha from the Ghanavyuha Sutra (also known as the Sutra of the Dense Array). Buddha said:

“Wise persons take my words as a goldsmith buys his gold, after cutting, melting, and rubbing on a touchstone, and only after thorough examination do they accept them.”

True leaders know not to accept pronouncements or perceptions whether from their own internal judgements or from wise men and women, without due diligence.

Assumptions are dangerous
Is this a communist militant, or the patriarch of a family seeking freedom? Could he be both at the same time?

Too often, as was the case in Vietnam, the opposite is true. By interviewing him or herself, a leader believes his or her version of reality is true for all. This delusion led McNamara and many others in the Vietnam era astray. He, according to Willbanks, expected Ho Chi Mihn and other North Vietnam leaders to behave in a “rational” way. But, what seemed rational to an American mind was not the same as a Vietnamese mind fighting for the right to their homeland unencumbered by foreign invaders. The fear of communism, like the fear of all “otherness,” only added fuel to the flame.

As We Are

Finally, author Anaïs Nin reminds us, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Her words illuminate the assumption machine eloquently. Our histories, stories, perceptions, even our moods, color what we see and the truth we construct around it. I must therefore choose to question. I can interview myself, but I can’t stop with myself. Instead, I must allow my truth to be questioned. I must hold in my mind an open space for new evidence to take root.

To avoid catastrophes like Vietnam, where brave people on both sides suffered for incomprehensible reasons, questions matter far more than answers.

Your turn: Have you found yourself on the wrong side of an assumption? What did you do about it? 





Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

14 thoughts on “Avoid Catastrophe, Make Fewer Assumptions”

  1. Great thought-provoking exploration of assumption and politics — without being ‘in your face obnoxious’ as is so common these days. Thank you for this. Don’t we all live by assumptions though? I would need a good deal of time to reflect on a specific example, but I’d probably have to honestly say I make the most assumptions about folks on the opposite side of the political or religious spectrum from me. I am fortunate that my family is filled with the entire spectrum and we continue to actually dialogue despite the current divisiveness in our country. This makes us all challenge our assumptions and open our minds. For this I am grateful.

    1. We do live by assumptions. I make them every day. In my mind, the key is to leave room in our brains for allowing those assumptions to be challenged.
      I’m so glad you and your family are continuing to have dialogue. I’d say the same of my own family. And I too am grateful.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  2. I love your thought-provoking posts just as much as your positive awesome nuggets!

    In this one, I really like the idea of “do to others what they would want done to them.” I do normally treat people how I would like to be treated, but you are right, not everyone likes the same things, so I should be more mindful of this.

    1. Thank you for reading, Josy! What I really appreciate about you is your desire to keep learning and thinking–just as I hope I do. We can’t change what we don’t know about, right? Again–you’re awesome. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I love that Anaïs Nin quote. It’s how we look at art, isn’t it? We see what we want to see. Our perception of art, our thoughts on what it’s trying to say, all gets related to ourselves. It is what we think it is, not what the artist necessarily intends. However, I think that’s ok with art that’s in a public place, but not in day to day circumstances. I’m a firm believer in “walk a mile in my shoes”, but we can never truly understand someone because we can never truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Though, if we at least understand that everyone is different and everyone has lived different life experiences then that at least is a start.

    1. I agree with you on art. That’s a perfect example. And a good thing! I think we even “create” the art through how we understand it–like a conversation with the artist rather than a monologue. But when it comes to trying to figure out why someone else acts or thinking as they do, I think I need to start with an idea, but keep plenty of room for that idea to be wrong. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment!

  4. An amazing piece! I forgot about that Ken Burns documentary–I need to watch it. There is indeed a danger to assumptions. It doesn’t help there’s this sort of paranoid band wagon mentality in social media, too: “You didn’t like this movie? Therefore, I declare that you HATE this group of ___!” There’s no seeking of evidence. Just blind: “love/hate” sides that foolishly over-dictate what people MUST be feeling if they don’t like something. It’s ridiculous.

    1. Excellent point. I think we’re hard wired in some ways to seek those dualities when we’re frightened in particular. It takes energy NOT to–energy we don’t have when we’re afraid. I try to realize I’m doing it too and have to constantly, constantly, fight against my desire to be comfortable in my little hut of righteousness.
      Thank you so much for adding your thought–I’d love to hear what you think of the documentary. It’s tough to watch, but one of those important things to know about.

  5. Yes, I have made one big assumption in the last year. What did I do? I confronted the person, in a nice way. I’m still not sure if I was right or wrong in what I had assumed, as the person’s response was “wishy – washy”, but I do have to say that after talking to that person, our relationship has grown significantly in the last year. So, confronting the person about my assumption was a positive action, thankfully! I could see where confrontation about an assumption could go in a negative way, so I suppose it’s good to weigh the pros and cons before talking. A great and important article, Angela!

    1. I think that’s perfect. I remember doing something very similar. I’d made an assumption that a person didn’t respect me based on some of the ways he communicated. I set up a meeting to talk it out. Starting with, “Here’s my perception…” and letting him confirm or deny. Turns out he’d made some assumptions too. I definitely think talking about those things helps a lot. It takes courage to bring it up–but if it’s done with good intent and with the full understanding that we both might be wrong–then I think it’s a good thing for sure. You did great!

  6. I’ve never heard of the platinum rule before but I believe that’s even better than the golden rule and soooo true!!! This post reminds me to be mindful of this.

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