The Terror of Assumptions

December 11, 2020

Let me start with a joke.
A guy drives his car down a windy road, late at night, pitch dark. Then he realizes he has a punctured tire. He stops and tries to change the tire and finds out that he doesn't have a jack. He's stuck.  He's waiting for cars to pass by so he can ask for a jack but it's late at night and there are no cars. So, he looks down the road and sees in some distance, the light of a house.  He decides to walk to the house and maybe, they can loan him a jack. As he's walking, he started to talk to himself: "I go and knock on the door. Somebody opens the door.  I explain my situation and ask for a jack.
The guy says: “ Why are you here in the middle of the night? Why should I give you a jack?”
So I tell him: “Please, I need a jack to fix up my car.”
“Why should I trust you?” he says. “ Why do you go on a trip without a jack?”
“Well, look at me, I'm a reasonable person and a trustworthy person.”
“How do I know?...”

As he's talking to himself, he's getting angrier and angrier at the person that he's going to be asking the jack from. When he arrived at the house, he knocked on the door and as the person opened the door he started screaming at the guy: "I don't need your goddamn Jack. If you don't want to give it to me, never mind." The guy is looking at him in total shock. He doesn't know what's going on.

How frequently do we have a conversation in our head about an event  that did not happen yet? By the time we finish debating and analyzing the event, and in the process amplifying the case and creating a scenario that fits our way of perceiving reality, we confuse what is in our head with real reality. We're getting all upset while in reality nothing happened at all.

You can see this happening with some people as they walk into a meeting. They come with a sour face ready for a fight although nothing has happened yet to call for a fight. They probably assumed what is going to happen in the meeting, had in their head some difficult exchanges with people and now, hurt, they are ready for a real fight although in reality nothing happened.

Here is another joke, how assuming can destroy relationships. It's called the watch syndrome.

An old man and a young man are riding a train for a while. After a while,  
the young man asked the old man: "Sir, what time is it please?” The old man doesn't answer him. After some more time,  the young man asks again: “Sir, please, what time is it?” Again, no  answer. Finally, the young man gets upset, and says: “Sir, why don't you tell me what time it is. You have a watch, I see it. You do hear because you talked to the conductor…..what did I do wrong that you refuse to tell me what time it is?"

And the old man says: "Look young man, I'm going to tell you what time it is and I see you're an intelligent young man, and we're going to start a conversation and it's going to be a very interesting conversation and then we will get off at the same railway station and because I had a very interesting talk with you, I'm going to invite you home for dinner and I have a beautiful young daughter, that's going to fall in love with you and I don't want my daughter to marry a man who doesn't have a watch."  

You see what happened? It was all in his head, nothing happened in reality. We often confuse reality with an imaginative reality, and we react to an imaginary reality as if it is real  reality. I call it the terrorism of assumptions. In our head we assume certain interactions, certain events, which did not occur yet, but what we think, to us, it appears as  reality  to which we react, although it did not happen yet at all.

I found out that one of the important roles I have in managing myself, is to manage what I think. I saw once a bumper sticker: "Don't believe everything you think.". Control what you think, evaluate what you think, because you might be managing with assumptions and terrorizing others with your behavior.Always be curious first, then judge. Investigate before you decide. Do not assume. Come to a meeting with an open head to look at everything without prejudgment.  

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes