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.
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?
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.
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?