Visualise it: you're in a meeting, discussing the budget for the Security Division. You begin to state your idea regarding an issue with cyber security, "The biggest problem I see is…" and suddenly the gentleman down the table interrupts, "Yes! The biggest problem is the way the pens and pencils in the storeroom keep disappearing. Exactly!" You stop and frown. Everyone looks perplexed. What do pens and pencils have to do with cyber security?

The co-worker who interrupted you made a common mistake in communication – he made an assumption. In fact, he made several assumptions. He assumed your statement was about security in general as opposed to cyber security. He also assumed that he knew what your statement was going to focus on. Finally, he assumed that you and he agreed about the problem.

Why do we make assumptions? 

Often, we make assumptions about what someone else is trying to say because of speech patterns. Some people talk faster than others; some people use pauses in their conversation style. Perhaps your brain works just a little faster than the speaker's. Because of this, you might have a tendency to jump in and complete a sentence or idea during those pauses.

Another reason we make assumptions is that we think we know what the other person is going to say. Now, I don't know if you have psychic powers and can read minds, but I know I sure can't. That's why language developed – so we can communicate clearly. Guessing at what another person is going to say just causes confusion.

What happens when we make assumptions? 

Making assumptions not only causes confusion, but it also causes delays that most of us can ill afford. Time is money, and taking the time to explain where someone has made a wrong assumption is a waste of time that could be used for more productive work.

Similarly, making assumptions can also cause ill feelings in the office. If you are constantly finishing other people's sentences and jumping to conclusions about their ideas, the office dynamic is strongly affected. Others will stop including you in their meetings and brainstorming sessions because they know you don't pay attention anyway.

How can we avoid making assumptions? 

The key to keep from making assumptions in communication is to give full attention to the other person and understand exactly what he or she is saying first before adding your comments to the discussion. Here are five tips to ensure you won't be the one wasting time by making incorrect and often embarrassing assumptions when you communicate with others:

  1. Be patient. Your ideas are important, but no more important than anyone else's.
  2. Listen carefully. If you are busy thinking about what you want to say, you aren't going to hear what the other person is saying.
  3. Take notes if necessary. If the discussion is a long one, notes can help you remember the points you want to make.
  4. Rephrase what was said in your own words. This is the clearest way to ensure you haven't made an assumption about what a statement means.
  5. Don't interrupt. The speaker may be going on to clarify exactly what you are questioning.
  6. Pause and reflect. Allow some time to let the speaker's comments fully sink in by pausing and reflecting before you jump in to speak.

The 'assume' joke 

Ass/u/me: Although the old joke about the word 'assume' has been around for years (even the coach in the Bad News Bears movie used it) it still holds true. When you jump into someone else's statement, when you assume you know what they are going to say, you disrespect the person speaking. You also show your own lack of professional speaking style. In other words, you make an 'a**' out of 'u' and 'me.'