People Are Psychic! (And Other False Assumptions We Make When Communicating)

If the main focus of this blog is to explore the intersection of psychology and communications, then it’s high time I address a chronic, yet often overlooked, impediment to our interactions: human nature! This stretches far beyond the confines of work-related communication, but I will leave it up to you apply what you learn in this post to other aspects of your life.

noun_16800_ccOur powerful brains strive to be efficient machines, and this is accomplished by making quick decisions based on simple mental calculations. In plain English: it’s easier and faster to assume that the quiet person sitting alone on the couch at the cocktail party is shy; it’s harder and more time-consuming to consider alternative explanations for their behaviour.

What if they’ve had a long day and need to catch their breath before launching into an evening of socializing? What if they have an introverted personality and prefer deeper conversation with just one other person on the couch rather than chatting in large groups in the middle of the room? What if they’re just in a bad mood or feeling unwell?

Most of you probably don’t care about changing your thinking about cocktail party considerations – I know I don’t – but this line of thinking can be useful in a work environment, where misunderstanding your colleague’s behaviour or misinterpreting your boss’ directions can have direct consequences.

In my experience, misunderstanding arises from a series of unfortunate assumptions, the most common of which is that people are psychic. If I show up at the office and rush past my colleague’s door without stopping to say hi or make eye contact, I mistakenly assume they will know my reason is my looming deadline, and not rude behaviour. I probably don’t feel the need to convey this with words because I mistakenly believe my colleague has read my mind.

Another assumption we make is that the way we initially interact with others is the way we’ll always interact with them, or to put it more plainly, first impressions become lasting impressions. If during my first week at a new job my boss assigns me to a task I am highly proficient in, then it’s likely I will work quickly, ask no questions, require no clarification, and proceed with enthusiasm. What happens the following week when I’m challenged by something new? My boss will likely provide little support, mistakenly believing me to be the type of employee who thrives best with a hands-off style of management.

noun_43498_ccAnd then there’s the most insidious assumption of them all: the truth that is obvious to me must also be obvious to you. What makes this so sneaky is that it affects new versions of old situations, such as the training of a recent hire or the inclusion of an employee from a different department into a group of workers who have collaborated many times. All of the little things that make up work culture tend to be seen as obvious by those who are embedded in it, but this can often be vague and confusing to everyone else. Too often, conflict arises when we assume everyone knows what to do, when to speak, and how to work, and believe these rules to be readily apparent, yet unspoken.

Unfortunately, breaking the habit of making these assumptions takes hard work. Luckily for us, the new habit is simple: test your beliefs against reality by asking questions and set a good example for others by being very clear when you speak or write. Be direct about how you feel and what you think, and check in with others when you’re not clear about how they feel and what they think. It really can be that uncomplicated.

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