Check Your Assumptions When Communicating With Others

by Jamie Resker | Posted | Communication

Check Your Assumptions When Communicating With Others

The human brain is a meaning-making-machine. A machine that interprets a series of events and interactions experienced from our perspective as the truth. This truth then guides our feelings and our actions.

But the thing is, our assumptions about the motives and intentions of others are often incorrect and misguided. So our truth might not be so "truthful".

An example to consider

If my boss kept interrupting me during a meeting as I was trying to explain the new marketing plan roll out, I’m going to draw conclusions about what his interruptions meant.

In my mind I might be certain he didn’t have the confidence that I would get all of the details right. I have this feeling that he sees me as less capable than I am.

Since this is my interpretation, I'll continue scanning my environment for further evidence that my boss sees me as incompetent.

But is that really true?

The folly of one-sided assumptions

Intellectually we all know the following is true: “There are always two-sides to every story”.

So why do I continue making one-sided assumptions, colored by the way I see things? Why don’t I know better? Why does this happen?

First I’m human, and I’m not always thinking with a clear head during or immediately following an event I experienced as negative. Instead, I’m preoccupied with a range of emotions from being upset, angry or disappointed. That’s okay. It’s normal.

But with a bit of time I can usually “talk myself down off the ledge” and begin questioning the story I’ve told myself.

5 truths about communication

With that time and perspective, here are five things I know to be true (and these are true about both "positive" and "negative" communications, though I tend to be most aware of them when I receive what I perceive to be "negative" communication):

  1. I make sense out of my current experiences through a dirty, cracked and distorted lens. A lens built on past experiences, both conscious and unconscious.
  2. My interpretation of what the individual intended feels absolutely 100% real.
  3. I’m guided by my internal feelings, how an individuals’ words or actions affected me, and I can spend a fair amount of brain energy going through what happened and what it all means.
  4. I’m operating from a place of having only partial information.
  5. My assumptions are very likely incorrect.

The Situation, Behavior and Impact (SBI) feedback model

When an event occurs we interpret motives and intention. This phenomenon is the main cause of most misunderstandings.

The Situation, Behavior and Impact (SBI) model, which was developed at the Center for Creative Leadership, is a well-known framework for giving feedback.

I’ve yet to use the SBI model for delivering feedback but have found the framework invaluable to check my assumptions against reality. It’s a quick non-confrontational approach to uncover someone’s real motives versus guessing, and usually assuming the worst.

Here are the steps for checking your assumptions:

  1. Start the conversation: Can I ask you about something?
  2. Describe the situation: Who, where, what
  3. Recount the behavior: What occurred (the facts)
  4. Describe the impact: Your internal experience (your interpretation)
  5. Seek clarification: Ask, “Did I get this right?” or, “Have I misread things?”
  6. Listen for the rest of the story: uncover the truth.

Back to our earlier example

So let's go back to my earlier example, and apply the SBI model.

Overview: My boss interrupted me several times during the staff meeting and I think it might have been because he thought I wasn’t capable of explaining our new marketing process.

Seek permission: “Can I check something out with you? “

Situation: “In the staff meeting the other day…"

Behavior: "…When I was explaining the new process you jumped in and finished the part we had agreed was mine...”

Impact: “…It made me feel like you didn’t think I knew what I was talking about.”

Clarify: “Is that the case or am I off base in how I’m thinking about this?”

Boss’ response: "I just got carried away. I was so excited about the new process that I just rattled on. I should have stopped myself and had you take over the presentation. I’m sorry that happened and I have full confidence about your knowledge about the new process."

The power in checking our assumptions

Remember that our worst fears are typically unfounded or highly exaggerated.

There’s no replacement for having a direct conversation with an individual whose words or actions are bothersome.

The SBI feedback model is a useful and easy to apply communication tool that works wonders to alleviate the worry and stress that accompany unproven assumptions.

Bringing closure to a troublesome situation clears up misunderstandings and keeps relationships intact. When we become unstuck we can move on and free up valuable mental space.

Your turn: Have you used the SBI model or a similar technique to check your assumptions and resolve a conflict? Can you share some examples?

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