5 Ways to Avoid Assumptions

We all do it. See someone new and, within seconds, our brains start making up stories about them. Or we meet them, exchange a few words and before we know it, we’re filling in the gaps with our imaginations. The result? Assumptions.

I made an assumption recently, ironically right after running a workshop on accessibility and confidence for health staff. My colleagues Kylie and Sam, and I were about to get into the car when an elderly gentleman approached us.

“As always happens in hospitals,” he said, “I’m lost.”

We laughed. “We’re from Auckland,” we said (we were in rural New Zealand), “so we’re technically lost too! But we have a map of the hospital.”

“I’m looking for the rehabilitation centre.” His name, we ascertained later, was Arthur.

“That’s quite a way from here, but we’re heading that way,” said Kylie. “We’ll give you a lift if you’d like.”

Arthur gratefully accepted and, as he and I sat in the car while Kylie and Sam loaded my wheelchair, I quipped to him, “You’ve probably done you rehab for the day, walking around trying to find the place.”

Arthur muttered something but seemed a little bemused. I thought he may not have heard me.

On the way to the hospital’s main entrance, Arthur mentioned that he was there to visit his wife. Suddenly his bemusement made sense.

I had assumed he was there for rehab. Why? He was elderly, used a walking stick, had a limp and had said he was looking for the rehab centre.

In this case, no real harm was done — it was a fleeting encounter and our relationship and interaction weren’t professional in nature. Arthur probably thought I was a bit of a dick. But had things been different — say I was a medical professional — and I had acted on my assumption, poor old Arthur could have been whisked off for rehab.

So what could I have done differently to avoid the misunderstanding? Here are 5 things to limit the risk of making and acting on assumptions.


Noticing is linked to observing, but it involves being aware of — and separating — the meaning made by the observation. I observed Arthur’s age, stick, and limp. I went beyond noticing, though, by making meaning of those three observations — that he was receiving rehab — when he mentioned the rehabilitation centre.

Noticing without making meaning is important in avoiding assumptions.


What I failed to do was to doubt the meaning I had made. Doubt is a difficult balance — too much doubt renders us incapable of action, while not enough (or none) leaves us too sure and over-confident. Our cultural fear of being wrong can lead us to inaccurately believe we are right (see this TED Talk “On being wrong”).

Healthy doubt allows us to consider we may be wrong and feel ok about that.


Had I doubted the meaning I had made of Arthur’s reason for being at the hospital looking for the rehab centre, I could have asked Arthur a number of questions:

Why are you looking for the rehab centre?

Are you here for rehab?

What brings you to the hospital?

Questioning alleviates doubt. It also opens communication and allows you to gain insight into people’s stories.


The process of questioning allows us to recognise (“re-cognise” or “re-think”) our observations, meaning and insight into the person or situation. When I heard Arthur say he was visiting his wife, I recognised my error and that gave me the opportunity to correct my assumption.

Recognising the accuracy of the information we collect and create from people and situations helps us avoid acting on assumptions.


Unfortunately, in the two minutes between Arthur mentioning his wife and dropping him off at the hospital entrance, I didn’t have time to explain the mistaken meaning I had applied to his situation. In different circumstances, I could have said something like, “Oh your wife is in rehab? I’m sorry, I wrongly assumed it was you, which is why I made that dumb joke. My apologies.”

A response like that requires us to admit we were wrong. When we’re wrong, we think we’re right until we realise we’re not. There’s nothing we can do to undo it but we can apologise with humility and grace.

A response that is based on awareness and reflection is far more like to be useful and constructive than a reaction that hasn’t been fully thought through.

These five steps work in any situation where we are interacting with people. It’s especially useful when working in a professional role, providing customer service or working alongside colleagues. It’s also particularly helpful in situations of diversity, when there is something about the person with whom we are interacting that is new or unknown.

The process of noticing, doubting the meaning we’ve made, questioning to clarify our understanding, recognising the accuracy of our assumptions and then responding based on this information — even if it means admitting we’re wrong — is a discipline. It requires awareness, reflection, curiosity, humility and a commitment to relate to each other authentically and respectfully.

It also ensures our interactions are based on fact and shared understanding, not imagination and assumption.

Stand Up and Speak Out: No Bullying Allowed

In recent news, a Florida teen was cleared of a felony charge of third-degree aggravated assault stalking  from bullying that led to the suicide of a 12-year-old girl in September. Rebecca Ann Sedwick had been ‘absolutely terrorized’ by the other girls before she climbed a tower at an abandoned concrete plant and hurled herself to her death. The bullying apparently started over a ‘boyfriend issue’ at Crystal Lake Middle School.

Katelyn one of the girls accused stated, “No, I do not feel l did anything wrong.”Katelyn and a 14-year-old girl were charged last month after Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff Grady Judd saw a derogatory post on Facebook that he claims was written by one of them. The Facebook post said, “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but IDGAF [I don’t give a f—].”

Bullying is becoming a huge problem in today’s society.

  • Over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyber bullying.
  • More than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber threats online
  • 1 in 7 students in grades K-12 is either a bully or a victim of bullying.
  • 56 percent of students have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school.
  • Over two-thirds of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.

What can we do?

No_BullyingTeaching kids and teens that bullying is not cool is one of the first steps we can make in educating our youth. As adults, we should model the behavior we want our children to exhibit as well as encouraging them to report if they see bullying happening. By encouraging them to speak up, it recognizes that not saying anything is just as bad as participating.

Bullies are often victims of abuse themselves or are lashing out because of  low self-esteem and other personal issues in order to make themselves feel better. Bullies can also be the”popular” kids or teens that are liked by many of their peers and teachers. No matter who it is it should not be tolerated. Joking with your friends is one thing, but teasing someone to the point where they’re afraid to attend school, ride the bus etc is unacceptable.

Teachers should also take bullying serious and intervene when possible. Managing their classrooms, investigating and knowing their students, recognizing relationships between their students, creating rules that allow victims to confide in and trust them are all major steps in confronting this epidemic.

As hard as it may be, I think encouraging victims to speak up for themselves and tell someone they trust about the bullying is necessary to begin addressing the root of the problem. One of the most important things a person should demonstrate is respect for themselves and others. Identifying ways to increase self-esteem is the first line of defense against bullying which results into lower self worth and inferiority.

Early years are an important time for parents, teachers and other forces in the child’s life to enlighten them on how to relate with their peers. If we start there, I think we can make a difference.

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