Dangerous Assumptions (And How Listening Can Cure This Mistake)

Don't Assume - Listen

Mom, are you even listing to me?  This is a question that Zachary (my oldest son) asked of me last summer.  He was trying to tell me something that was important to him and I was trying to “listen” to him while doing a million other things.  The unfortunate answer to this question was “no”.  I looked into his face and saw how important it was to him that I truly listen to him (and that I stop thinking about everything else).  On this particular day, he truly caught my attention.  So what did I do?  I answered his question and told him “I am now”.  And then I truly listened.

That moment changed the way I communicate with people.  Not just with my son or family members, but with people in general.  At that moment, I began to realize that I hadn’t been listening to people very well for a very long time.  So I began to pay attention to how I interacted with people.  And I began to concentrate on truly listening.  What I found was both mortifying and wonderful.

The mortifying part was what I discovered about how I had been communicating (and, truth be told, still do to this day if I’m not careful).  I discovered that I wasn’t truly listening to people who spoke to me.  What was I doing?  Well, I would half-way listen and allow my own worries and thoughts to impede (and trust me, half-way listening doesn’t count as true listening).  Or, even worse, I would begin constructing my response before the other person was done speaking (and sometimes within seconds of them beginning to speak – especially when the topic was one that I felt passionate about).  Unfortunately, this resulted in me making lots of assumptions about people – often that weren’t true.  I was unknowingly uninterested in finding out who they really were, what they really thought and why.

Luckily, I was able to change my behavior once I became aware of it.  Sure, I still fail sometimes (alas, I am human).  But I was shocked at how easy it was to change.  What made it so easy?  I discovered that people are quite interesting.  No one is the same.  We all have differing opinions and different reasons for our opinions.  Each of us has a different story to tell.  I learned that to be silent and truly listen to people creates real curiosity.  Curiosity that elevates your listening skills to an entirely different level.  And that creates within you a compassion for others that you don’t realize is possible.

Now, you may be wondering how something as simple as listening can result in having more compassion toward others.  Well, dear reader, it all comes down to the assumptions we make about others.  When we refuse to truly listen, we assume.  And assumptions are dangerous – because they are often incomplete and/or wrong.  When we make assumptions about someone we miss out on who they really are.  We are lost without ever knowing it.

I have to tell you that having discovered this about myself and striving to change it during the Presidential election season truly tested me.  Something you may not know about me: I’m a Republican (well, at least I was a Republican).  I liked many of the candidates who ran (and loved a few of them).  But there was one I couldn’t stand – at all.  He and his supporters tested me royally.  But I began to listen to them.  And I began to understand what they saw in him and why they thought he was the answer.  I didn’t necessarily agree, but I began to understand.  And that forced me to drop some assumptions and re-think what they were really voting for (and, let me tell you:  it took away much of the fear that I had).

I’ve been watching people on social media this past week and it occurs to me that many people need to start listening to one another – and this goes for both sides of the political aisle.  Right now many are talking past each other – going into the “conversation” with preconceived ideas and attitudes that they refuse to change.  Despite the fact that many of these people haven’t bothered to truly understand the other side, they are making some pretty serious and hateful statements about others.  They are vilifying and demonizing.  And I’m seeing this on both sides (so don’t assume that I’m talking about one side over the other – because I’m not).

If you are one of these people, please listen:  you MUST stop this.  You are doing yourself and our country a huge disservice.  Most people aren’t evil and don’t have bad intentions.  If you learn to truly listen, then you may just learn something.  You don’t have to agree, but you do need to get to a place of understanding.  And if you learn to understand more, fear and anger will start to melt away.  This country isn’t full of hateful and terrible people.  Do they exist?  Absolutely.  But that isn’t most people.  A side note on this topic:  if you truly listen with an open mind, it will very clearly tell you who is truly dangerous and who isn’t (and I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised).

That’s it for now, folks.  I tried not to wade into this subject, but for some reason this is what came out.  Hopefully, we can move past politics for a while.  I’m a bit exhausted with it all, to be quite honest.  Until next time…



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  1. You mention folks talking past each other and that is certainly happening. One rule that folks can apply to their own discourse is pretty simple (yet surprisingly hard to do): criticize the actions, not the person.

    Specifically, stop calling people names and focus on what they are doing or saying that you disagree with. You may not change their minds by doing this, but I guarantee you, if you accuse someone of being a “racist” or a “bleeding-heart”, you are attacking the person and that person is not about change in any way you might desire. It is far more likely you will simply get them to entrench their position.

    Here’s a thought experiment: imagine calling someone an idiot when they make a mistake at work. Are they likely to take that well and work on a constructive response?

    You wouldn’t do that, of course. But you might feel compelled to point out a mistake that needs correcting. And if you are skillful in your feedback, the person can probably hear that and take action. Certainly your odds of that outcome are improved.

    This comes up in couples counseling – folks who otherwise love each other fall into a bad pattern of confusing behavior with the person. People can change behaviors, but not if they feel personally attacked. When someone feels personally attacked, listening stops and defensive fight or flight reactions take over. These days, all too often, it’s fight.

  2. It always starts with listening. Probably the most impactful thing I did in college was participating in peer counseling. The training for this started with listening skills and that training totally reframed how I thought about good communication.

    Listening to someone with your full attention AND your filters down takes a conscious intent. In our busy, increasingly distracted lives, that can be hard. So you start by giving your full attention and letting them finish. You add to that an awareness of your own filters and assumptions and make an effort to put those to one side.

    Then I would add to that a conscious exercise of empathy – put judgement aside and listen with a truly open heart. Especially if what they are saying runs contrary to what you believe. If you truly believe what the other person is saying is wrong, you have to really hear it first – mind and heart.

    Do I do this all the time? Heck no. But I do remember to do it when reading some of the more highly charged social media posts. And I have just enough wisdom to avoid fanning those flames. Usually. 😉

    There is another aspect to all this that I will post in a different comment.

  3. I love this. I too am trying hard to be a better listener. At one time I think I was a good listener and for some reason I began to not let people complete what they were saying in an effort for my own opinions and thoughts to be heard. I’ve been working on this for some time, and still catch myself doing it. People are interesting and beautiful. God made us all different on the outside and on the inside. Often there is no “right” or “wrong”. I will continue to work hard at being a better listener too!

    1. I still catch myself not listening fully too. It isn’t always easy. But at least I’m not aware and trying to change it (after all, awareness is what brings us to choice – which brings change). I’m pretty certain this is something I will always be striving to do better at. However, once you are aware I have noticed that I catch myself and can course correct if I need to (before I became aware, there was absolutely no ability to course correct).

      Interestingly, I’ve found that Zachary doesn’t listen as well as he used to (he wants to insert his opinion too quickly before people are done talking). He used to not be this way. Noah is still a very good listener. I think it relates to curiosity. Younger kids have lots of it. As you grow older, you develop more opinions and want to share them with the world. I also wonder if we teach people to talk more than listen in today’s society. It seems like it is a learned behavior that most of us struggle with once we grow older (but don’t start with it as kids).

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