The Benefits and Risks of Assumptions in Communication

by Dr. Helen Radovanovic
“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” -- Anthony Robins
Assumptions necessarily have a strong role in the evolution of human language and communication. Assumptions, or automatically attributing a particular cultural or personal meaning to a word or phrase or message helps us process information more efficiently. It also ensures a communal understanding for specific words and phrases.

Assumptions in our personal communication with familiar others is guided by past experience of the other and past experience in communications with them. This can serve a positive function in that we often anticipate the other’s reactions or share information more efficiently. In intimate relationships, when we assume how the other will feel, this allows us to shape our own response in a manner that is most constructive and sensitive.

Our own individual experiences, vulnerabilities and strengths, of course, also shape our assumptions. Under very emotional and/or stressful circumstances, however, assumptions can be maladaptive. When marriages are stressed, or in conflicted divorce situations, an individual’s assumptions about the intent or the meaning of the other’s communication can contribute to an escalation in conflict. Even when the relationship is neutral or positive, our own vulnerabilities and stress may lead to inaccurate assumptions and communication difficulties. In highly emotional circumstances, when individuals misinterpret the feelings behind or motivation or exact meaning of the communication and react based on that misinterpretation, arguments often ensue. When marriages or other intimate relationships have had a history of stress or problems, emotions run high and assumptions are often quickly and arbitrarily formed.

Hence, most communication experts and counselors give the following similar advice:
  1. Be patient when listening to someone and let them finish their thought/message.
  2. It is important to ask questions when you are feeling upset/stressed or when you are not absolutely sure what the other person intended or meant in their communication. Asking open-ended questions like “I’m not sure what you mean by that. Could you please explain?” is important to guard against negative or inaccurate assumptions. “I” statements such as “I heard you say…” or, “Is that what you meant?” are important tools in clarifying the interpretation and actual meaning of the communication.
  3. When emotions run high and the relationship has had a “rocky” history, it is important to focus on the present and “stay in the moment.” Do not allow past experience to guide your reactions.
  4. Express yourself clearly and try not to use vague or emotionally-charged language that can be misinterpreted.
  5. Separating your feelings from your understanding of the communication or situation is often helpful; this needs to be explained to the other person. “I feel angry about what you have said, but I do see your point…”
Human needs and relationships are complex. Although there is a need to organize incoming information in efficient ways, including what we assume about other’s motives, feelings and communications, there is an even more important need to understand one another accurately. This is important in every relationship, but especially important in the relationships which we value the most. It is also critical in our increasingly fast-paced, “short-form” and technological world.
“Communication works for those who work at it.”-- John Powell
Dr. Helen Radovanovic, Registered Psychologist
Dr. Radovanovic is a clinical psychologist in private practice with a special interest and specialized experience in assisting adults and children in separation/divorce situations. Her past professional experience has included working at the Family Court Clinic, Clarke Institute of Psychiatry/Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and as an assistant professor in Psychiatry for the University of Toronto. Dr. Radovanovic has published peer-reviewed articles and lectured extensively in the area of parental conflict and the impact on children.

No comments:

Post a Comment