Assumptions Are Communication (and Success) Killers

In the three major forms of business communication—conversation, writing, and presenting—you must make sure you are actually communicating, instead of thinking you are. And always test your assumptions.

One morning in late June my book publicist sent me an early morning email in which she discussed a few things related to my latest book Climbing the Corporate Ladder. She closed by saying, “Big day today . . . SCOTUS decision on healthcare!” I didn’t see her email until later in the day. By that time, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act had become big news. I responded to her questions and ended with “Great news on the Affordable Care Act. Surprised that Roberts was the swing vote.” The next day I received an email from her that said, “Oh, I thought you were like me and against Obamacare.” When I had read her email, I thought that like me, she supported the Affordable Care Act. This reminded me of some common sense career advice, which goes something like this:

Never assume that you know what other people are thinking. You’ll be wrong a lot of the time.
I realize that many readers of this magazine may differ with me on the merits of the ACA, and that’s okay by me. My point in the story above is that we all tend to view the world through our own perceptions— and that such perceptions can cause communication problems. Assumptions are
a great communication inhibitor. Here’s an assumption story: The Tour de France is the most famous bicycle race in the world, and Lance Armstrong won several Tours while riding for the now-defunct U.S. Postal Service team. Since I’m a bicyclist, I bought a U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team replica cap and was quite proud to wear it. One day I was wearing the cap in a local supermarket, when the checkout woman said, “Do you work for the post office?” When I told her I didn’t and explained about the USPS pro cycling team, I got a blank stare in return. I was
pretty disappointed because I just assumed that everybody would know about the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team. Here’s another one: My friend Rob Likoff (who is also on the Editorial Advisory Board of PM360 Magazine) lives in New York and is a big basketball fan. The license plate on one of his cars has a New York Knicks logo in the middle with the letters SLM DNK flanking it. Most people quickly recognize this as “Slam Dunk.” One day, Rob was taking a client to lunch. As they approached his car, she asked him if he had met a lot of women as a result of his license plate. He was somewhat puzzled and asked her what she thought the letters meant. “That’s easy,” she said, “Single Ladies Man, Divorced No Kids.” Rob was flabbergasted. He thought it was a slam-dunk that anyone who saw his vanity plate would realize that it meant “Slam Dunk.”

His colleague’s assumption made sense if you understand the context. She is a single woman in her mid-30s and had mentioned to Rob that she would like to get married and start a family. From her perspective, it made sense that the initials on the plate meant “Single Ladies Man, Divorced No Kids.” Again, assumptions are communication killers and, more importantly, potential career killers. Test your assumptions. Make sure you are actually communicating, instead of just thinking you are. This is true for all three of the major forms of business communication, conversation, writing and presenting.