Bad assumptions undermine relationships

It often amazes me how wonderfully inaccurate my assumptions are about others. When I started travelling widely throughout Australia, I remember initially being surprised that good people were present wherever I went. Why should I have been surprised? Did I think that good people existed only in the places I had lived? 

I also recall times when I have automatically assumed that someone I worked with was intentionally trying to make my life difficult.  At a later time I was able to appreciate their intentions were something else altogether. 

I also remember when I first started working with indigenous people, thinking they might be unfriendly, hostile or rejecting of me. Instead I have found just the opposite. 

I sometimes wonder why we tend to assume the worst, rather than assuming the best? Where does this tendency to make negative assumptions about others come from? Evolutionists would say that people tend to have a negativity bias which helps them to anticipate danger or problems with others that has helped to ensure our survival. 

Perhaps we may also have had negative experiences in the past with a particular individual or group and have generalised this experience.  I remember my mother speaking unkindly on a number of occasions about indigenous people. I sometimes wonder how much her beliefs were affected by her brother's suicide related to the end of his marriage to an indigenous woman.

Our assumptions can also be affected with lack of experience, choosing the easy path of simply believing a negative stereotype of that group. Many Australians, for example, tend to believe a negative stereotype about asylum seekers. But when they have direct experience with such individuals, they become more compassionate and welcoming.

The trouble with simply believing our initial assumptions is that we are often wrong. We also tend to get what we expect due to acting in ways consistent with these false beliefs. If, for example, you believe someone at work is deliberately being disrespectful, then this will certainly affect your demeanour and behaviour when speaking with them.  Actor, Henry Winkler was right when he said that our (false) assumptions about others really are the termites of our relationships.

So, how can you check your assumptions for accuracy? Firstly, you can ask yourself if there is a kinder way of seeing another person or group apart from the way you are initially seeing them. Given that most people are inherently good, I would choose the less sinister explanation if you can find one. Someone who you find difficult, for example, are they simply a different person to you? Are they under a lot of pressure at home or work? Or is it possible you are contributing in some way?

You can also check your assumptions with others. But here the challenge is finding someone you respect who can give you a non-biased perspective. Here you need to have a good enough relationship with that person where they can challenge your assumptions when needed. It could be your partner, a very good friend, or a mentor. Some people turn only to those people who share their beliefs thus confirming assumptions that are often inaccurate and unhelpful. 

You can also test your assumptions about an individual by asking yourself if that person's behaviour is following a pattern. If the behaviour is out of context for the person you know, then a new belief is needed. I know that my wife, Christy, for example, would never do anything intentionally to hurt me. On those occasions when I am feeling hurt by her, it helps me to get over this much more quickly when I remind myself that this assumption is not consistent with the person I know and love.

It can be quite liberating realising that our assumptions about others are often wrong. A new world opens to us and some wonderful learning can occur. Having found a more accurate and better way of thinking, we also find our behaviour changing  in ways we feel good about. 

We are allowed to be human, of course, and sometimes falsely think the worst of others. The smart ones amongst us, however, learn to double-check their perspective.


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