BEFORE ASSUMING TRY ASKING

Guest Post by Dusty Rhodes 

There is a popular quote you may have heard in recent years, which says…

We often judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by their actions!

I am not sure who to credit the quote to since I have seen it attributed to 3 different people. Regardless of who said it first, it likely rang true when you read it if you have ever felt judged by another person when being questioned by them about something you said or did. I think the quote above helps explain how we often handle conflict with others; we can easily assign ill intent to someone based solely on what they said or did, while at the same time we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt because we know our own intentions.

This dynamic around interpersonal communication can get messy, stressful and also be difficult to navigate when it happens in the workplace, especially between two people of different levels of responsibility. Yet anyone at work can feel judged by others at times. Since healthy conflict resolution is an expectation in today’s marketplace, there is a tool we can use to help avoid the judgements, minimize the stress and lessen the chance of someone down the hall exclaiming, “that escalated quickly!”

Since we know what our intentions are, I believe a missing link to making this go better is to try and determine what the intentions of others are. And the tool I recommend using is the question – ask questions to help reveal intentions – it’s about asking before assuming!

I like how author Michele Attias described her view of assuming: “Assumptions are a movie playing in our head using a dialogue which has been made up…from the area in our brain that utters the words maybe, perhaps, suppose.”1  Keeping that reality in mind she goes on to advise: “Make a choice to assume less, question more…there will be less confusion, fuzziness and there will be far more clarity.”

For me personally, assuming things incorrectly was certainly among mistakes I made as a younger leader, and it created problems I never intended. As an example I remember walking into a room where a group of employees were trying to solve a problem, one I had solved before in another time and place. Thinking I’ll be helpful and then be on my way, I offered a decision to fix the problem and left soon after. Most in the room felt obligated to go with my decision, while others to their credit voiced hesitation because they believed I was uninformed. The latter group felt if I knew the particular context they were dealing with, I would have advised them differently. This resulted in a kerfuffle with half the group hesitating and the other half wanting to move forward. Consequently a solution was delayed for days until I was invited into a meeting for them to re-explain the issue, re-seek my advice and to which I indeed offered a different decision.

It was only later that I realized I should have been more self-aware of my mistake and handled it differently in that moment. Instead I had created an additional problem which didn’t exist before. The staff who felt obligated to follow my advice were not to blame; they were trying to be team players. The others who hesitated were also not to blame; they were thinking critically and correctly assessed my lack of information. My intentions were not to blame (remember, we know our own intentions and I knew mine were good). It was my words and actions which were to blame; I was the one who created more problems because I did not first employ one simple tactic – the question. If I had walked into that room and began by asking some questions, I think a better solution would have been arrived at much earlier.

As that younger leader I was not as self-aware then as I hopefully am today. I was to learn in time this was a blind spot for me I needed to improve on by learning to use questions. Even if my initial decision was ultimately the correct one, my actions undermined the team and their roles and responsibilities, robbing them from feeling valued in their work. Asking before assuming would have been the better approach because it would have helped them to think critically and develop their problem-solving skills, resulting in a much more positive experience for everyone involved.

It was a hard lesson for me to learn then. From that example here are some sample questions I could have initially asked:

  • What do we know about this problem?
  • What is each of your perspectives on this issue?
  • Anyone here faced this problem before and, if so, how was it solved then?

Unfortunately it is not uncommon to see even accomplished leaders make the mistake of assuming before asking. Yet we all learn our lessons in different ways and at different times. Anyone in the workplace can learn to ask others good questions. If you can learn to effectively use the question as a tool it will help you unearth the intentions and motives of others. That will help you navigate the conversation in a healthier way and consequently avoid wrongly assuming things about the other person based only on their words or actions.

It is important to approach conflict or other challenges in the workplace with a sense of curiosity and open communication to help avoid misunderstandings. It takes more work to ask more questions. But being intentional to question more in order to assume less demonstrates valuing another’s intentions as much as you value your own.

So how might this look different in future situations? In the table below are listed various workplace issues. To the right of each issue are suggested questions you can use (in your own style or words) to first learn more about the issue, and thus avoid making wrong assumptions before further discussions or final decisions made.

Approach these questions with a genuine curiosity, using your own words, and with a willingness to understand the other person’s perspective. This can contribute to a more open and collaborative workplace environment.

Those in leadership roles are just as susceptible to this problem. It just may look different.

Once you begin doing this consistently, watch your fellow employees respond differently to you because your questions will address their desire to learn as they work. By asking before assuming, your questions will help create an environment for everyone to become better thinkers and problem-solvers, and thus more valuable and healthier contributors in the workplace.

1 – Media.com, April 20, 2018

Note – ChatGPT was used to help create some select questions.

Dusty Rhodes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dusty Rhodes is a strategic executive leader who works alongside mission-based organizations to create customized funding and operating solutions for sustainable growth. His accomplishments across 25+ years in the nonprofit and faith-based sectors have been while serving in mid-level management, executive and senior executive leadership positions.  You can connect with Dusty @ DustyRhodes777@Outlook.com  and  LinkedIn/in/DustyRhodes777

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