Effective Communication, Part 2: Avoiding Assumptions

In my last post, I introduced the idea of Communication Roadblocks. These are patterns of behavior during conversations that thwart good, honest communication. Another of these is what I call the Assumption-Maker. In this pattern, the listener quickly jumps to conclusions without checking for facts or eliciting more information. When this happens, good conversation is quickly detoured toward defensiveness, with one person trying valiantly (and often, angrily) to correct the perceived errors.

We’ve all been guilty of this, haven’t we? We assume we know how someone might parent, teach, or lead based on “evidence” we have gathered. Often, we are certain we’re correct, too, and we dig our heels in and present our perceptions as fact. Consider what the teacher of a first grade girl must have assumed when grading THIS paper:

Now, read the note sent to the teacher by this child’s mom:

Dear Ms. Davis,

I want to be perfectly clear on my child’s homework illustration.
It is NOT of me on a dance pole on a stage in a strip joint surrounded by male customers with money.
I work at Home Depot and had commented to my daughter how much money we made in the recent snowstorm.
This drawing is of me selling a shovel.


Mrs. Harrington

 See what I mean? 🙂I remember being in Mrs. Harrington’s shoes, trying to correct a teacher’s assumptions, when our daughter was in kindergarten. However, this issue elicited tears rather than laughter. One afternoon, Annie got off the bus and crumbled into my arms, sobbing. Apparently she had gotten into trouble after recess because she ended up in the wrong line. As a consequence, she had to sit on the piano bench in front of her peers while they were enjoying a treat. When I asked why she was in the wrong line, she tearfully told me that she had seen a friend she’d met at Safety Town, and remembered that they’d lined up together. She got confused and then followed that group rather than her own.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard this explanation. Annie’s ability to manage directions, especially in a setting like a playground (sensory overload!), had been greatly compromised when she’d had her stroke six months earlier. We were constantly working on this at home and with the occupational therapist. Clearly, I hadn’t communicated this issue with the teacher, and knew I had to fill her in quickly.

When I called the school, I asked what had happened, telling the teacher that we wanted to be sure that we understood the issue and follow through at home by reinforcing the school rules. I was surprised when the teacher told me that Annie was being disobedient, choosing to do what she pleased rather than follow directions. I tried to explain that Annie’s brain injury caused extreme disorganization in her ability to manage such situations, and that, while not an excuse for her behavior, was a contributing reason for the incident. The teacher’s response cut me to the core:
“You know, Mrs. Wetherbee, you’ve probably bent the rules for Annie since she was in the hospital. She just needs to learn that she needs to do what she’s told.”

That was a painful conversation. We eventually straightened things out (but not without a lot of tears and anger.) It was difficult, once the teacher had made her assumptions about our family, to pull her back to a solution-oriented path. It took several meetings, and finally, the involvement of our child’s doctors, to help the school understand brain injury.

As we consider how making assumptions causes a breakdown in communication, we need to address the kinds of assumptions that parents make as well. In  my private practice, I often hear parents say, “I want you to come to the meeting with me, because, you know, the school just wants to give me as little as possible.”  Similarly, in our Key Ministry work, we’ve had parents tell us, “The youth team just doesn’t get it. I watched a worship service once, so I can tell. They just don’t know anything about special needs.

These statements might be based on parents’ perception of the competence of staff, and some of the parents’ own experiences, and even what they’ve been told by others. There might even be some truth in these statements. However, sticking to these, and assuming the worst, breaks down communication and does little to promote collaborative relationships.

So, how can we avoid being an Assumption-Maker?

  • Pray…that your heart, mind and ears will be open to what the speaker is telling you, and that you can find common ground on which to build cooperation
  • Make your own opinions based on YOUR experiences, not those of other staff or parents
  • Ask questions to learn the speaker’s perspective, and clarify to be sure your perception is accurate (“What I heard you say is…” or “You seem to be telling me that…”)
  • Extend grace. We all make mistakes. I’d like to think I’m a better mom/teacher/friend because I’ve shaped my  behavior based on what I’ve learned from some of my errors! I want people to extend grace to me~ and I want to do the same.
  • Glorify God in your conversations

~Praying for fewer detours onto Assumption Avenue …






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