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Defeating Assumptions: 3 Steps to a Shared Understanding

Steven Coveys 5th habit is ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

Why should we seek to understand? Because “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are or, as we are conditioned to see it.” Stephen Covey.


We all make meanings of everything we experience in our world. If you apply this to communication, it is easy to see how misunderstandings happen. The meanings we make of what people say and how they say it, especially if we are unfamiliar with them or have made assumptions about them or the situation, could be different from the meanings they meant and vice versa.

Assumptions can make it difficult to reach a shared understanding about anything, to solve problems, resolve conflict, build relationships and work as a team. I was chatting with two members of a highly functioning team recently and one their core communication strategies is to challenge their own assumptions. It’s a great strategy. One that is so simple but can also be incredibly difficult to consistently practice. It requires a high level of emotional intelligence and has can be split into four parts


To challenge assumptions we must notice that we are making them. We have to understand ourselves and that we all make assumptions, often unconsciously for a lot of the time. We can assume peoples intentions, meanings, motivations, thoughts and moods. Really, it saves a lot of time – we couldn’t spend our lives clarifying everything!

But sometimes we must and this is where EI comes in. We have to build our noticing muscle both for the assumptions that we make. If we think we have detected an assumption, then we must challenge it.


When you notice you may have made an assumption, ask yourself:   “What am I assuming here?”, “How do I know I’m right?” “Where is the evidence for this assumption?” and “What other explanation could there be?”

This puts you in a good frame of mind to be curious and clarify


Clarify what you heard to make sure you understand what the other person meant: “you said…did you mean… by that?” “I think I heard you say… is that right?”

Of course when you are having this conversation you must really listen to the other person …and this means not thinking about what you want to say next (we all do this!), rather, try to focus on what they are saying – be truly curious.

When you have sought to understand where someone is coming fromyou will be able to respond in a way that matches the way they think and see things. As a result of your empathetic communicating they will also be more likely to listen to what you have to say. It’s a win/win for everyone.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People . 1989, NY: Free Press.


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