Assumptions: Why Being Right Is Wrong

While researching my new book What? I discovered that when listening to others, we naturally assume we understand what’s meant and don’t question our assumption. Yet the filters our brain uses to hear what others mean to convey preclude accuracy, leading to faulty assumptions. Essentially, here’s what happens that makes accuracy so difficult (for more detail and research references read my free digital book What? Did you really say what I think I heard?):

  1. We only retain words we hear for approximately 3 seconds.
  2. On direct listening, our brain automatically and haphazardly deletes portions of what is foreign to our typical thinking.
  3. Our brain then takes what’s left over after the initial deletion and seeks an historic match (from a prior conversation our brain deems similar), and deletes whatever is divergent from that match.
  4. Our brain then takes the remainder from that deletion and filters it through our beliefs, values, filters, habits and memory.
  5. Whatever is left after deletions in steps 2, 3, 4 is what we adamantly assume we have heard.

A simple example of this just happened today. I was introduced as ‘Sharon Drew’ to a friend’s friend followed by this dialogue:

V: Hi Sharon.
SDM: Actually, my first name is Sharon Drew.
V: Oh. I don’t know anyone who calls themselves by their first name AND last name.
SDM: Neither do I.
V: But you just told me that’s how you refer to yourself!

Because a double first name was foreign to her, she put it in an accustomed category, deleting how she heard the introduction, and then wrongly assumed a typical a first name/last name configuration. She exacerbated the problem by then assuming she was right and I was wrong when I corrected her.

Assumptions Restrict Authentic Communication 

We all do this. Using conventional listening practice, it’s pretty difficult to hear what is meant without making assumptions. As a result, we end up restricting, harming, or diminishing authentic communication, and proceed to self-righteously huff and puff about what we believe is ‘right’, potentially getting the context, the outcome, the description, or the communication, wrong. Or we assume the speaker meant something they didn’t mean at all. In business it gets costly when we wrongly assume a task we were never asked to perform.

I recently got a reproaching note from an annoyed colleague when, among several faulty assumptions he made that were far, far from my intent (and in one case making an assumption about my behavior that in fact was a direct response to something he did!), I didn’t behave according to his beliefs: I had asked if he wanted to ‘preview’ my new book before it came out, and he felt my subsequent behaviors insufficient given my request that he ‘review’ the book. When I pointed out his faulty assumption he got quite bumptious until I sent him back to the original email. It cost us both a possible business collaboration.

Assumptions cost us greatly, harming relationships, business success, and health:

  • Sellers assume prospects are buyers when they ‘hear’ a ‘need’ that matches their solution and end up wasting a huge amount of time chasing prospects who will never buy;
  • Consultants assume they know what a client needs from discussions  with a few top decision makers while ignoring some of the important influencers, causing resistance to change;
  • Decision scientists assume they gather accurate data from the people that hired them and discount important data held by employees lower down the management chain, inadvertently skewering the results and making implementation difficult;
  • Doctors, layers, dentists assume foundational, standard certainties that may not be true in any unique patient/client situation and don’t get to the real issues, potentially causing harm;
  • Coaches assume clients mean something they are not really saying or skewering the focus of the conversation, ending up biasing the outcome with inappropriate questions that lead the client away from the real issues that never get resolved.

Using normal listening habits we can’t avoid making assumptions. But we can supersede our brains by taking the Observer/Coach role and listening for the metamessages – patterns, system, structure – of what is said rather than the story line or content (which is what our brains use to acquire the assumptions).

About the Author

Sharon Drew Morgen is founder of Morgen Facilitations, Inc. ( She is the visionary behind Buying Facilitation®, the decision facilitation model that enables people to change with integrity. A pioneer who has spoken about, written about, and taught the skills to help buyers buy, she is the author of the acclaimed New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it.

To contact Sharon Drew at [email protected] or go to to choose your favorite digital site to download your free book.