It would be an understatement to say that life since March 2020 has been different. We fearfully and urgently changed how we were living, working and connecting with people. Now we’re changing back, or are we? Some firms have required in-office presence a few days a week since mid- 2021, some scheduled and rescheduled a return to office several times. Expectations about meeting in person or virtually have changed. Expectations differ. Our assumptions about how to do just about anything and everything have changed, or they haven’t.
We are confronting the fact that our operating norms are in flux, evolving with changing circumstances. Consequently, we don’t often know whether our norms align with those of col- leagues and clients, but we operate as if we know. Without thinking, we do what seems right. And that’s the problem: We aren’t thinking because we haven’t had to—at least not about these seemingly obvious norms for working together. Prior to March 2020, how and what we did were for the most part obvious. After a few months of pandemic uncertainty, how and what we did became more obvious. Now, we are at the next inflection point in how and what we do. And it can be confusing, causing frustration and stress.
The confusion about how and what shows up as misunderstandings about whether you’ll meet in person or virtually. You thought you’d send a Zoom link for a two-hour meeting, only to find that the client expected you to fly across the country. It might manifest as amnesia over the simple things of bygone years, such as whether to include the address for an in-person deposition or the process for attending a live hearing. The point is that we’re not in the habit of doing what we’ve always done but act as if “my way” is the norm, causing misunderstandings and the consequent stress. We also experience stress because we don’t know who has reverted to the “old way,” who has a “new way” and what that “new way” might be. Fear for personal and economic safety amplify stress and other negative emotions exponentially.
We’re stressed by our own assumptions for the simple reason that, as Albert Einstein stated, “Assumptions are made, and most assumptions are wrong.” Apropos of our experience is the axiom that “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are,” which is such a ubiquitous concept that it has been attributed to many over the millennia. The rub of this all? We all know that the pandemic has wrought havoc on our collaboration norms. We know that we all make assumptions. And yet, when we each act based on our assumptions, we believe we are acting based on facts and then are surprised when we experience a misunderstanding. We operate not knowing what we don’t know.
Especially while at this inflection point, the adage “Never assume the obvious is true” are words to live by. How can we train ourselves to live by what we already know to be true? Simple knowledge isn’t sufficient. The crux of this problem is that our assumptions are transparent, meaning we see right through them as if they weren’t there. While we typically think of transparency as being good, in this context the transparency traps us by shaping and ultimately governing what we think is possible without us even knowing it. Does the fish know it swims in water?
How to Escape the Transparent Assumption Trap
Accept for a moment that knowing isn’t enough—that knowing about riding a horse doesn’t mean we are able to do it without lessons and practice. Escaping the transparent assumption trap is much the same: You need a process and practice.
- Slow down. Caesar Augustus would have recommended, “Festina lente” or “Make haste, slowly.” In other words, “Slow down to speed up”—another ubiquitous adage. In a world ruled by time measured in a tenth of an hour, the adage seems counterintuitive. The faster we go, however, the more assumptions we must make to avoid being bogged down by too many decisions. Until you slow yourself down so that you have the capacity to observe, your assumptions and those of others will surreptitiously determine actions and outcomes.
- Observe powerfully. Observe, without judgment. Just notice. This will require you to be fully in the present moment, to be mindful. This focus in and of itself will serve to dial back your stress.
- Be curious about your own assumptions. Notice the sea of assumptions you swim in. Ask yourself: “What assumptions were the source of the mishap?” Laugh a little. As you solve problems, ask yourself: “What assumptions am I making?” “What assumptions are my colleagues and clients making?” “Are the constraints valid or imagined?”
- Be curious about others’ assumptions. Like you, colleagues and clients make decisions based on assumptions mistaken for facts. Like you, they can become stressed when the assumptions of those involved don’t align. Dial back your own and others’ stress with curiosity about what went wrong and why. Notice how the process of inquiry transforms stress into creativity and collaboration.
- Take note of your body disposition. Notice what happens when you adopt an intensely mindful and curious mindset. You are relaxed, calm and engaged by the potential for better outcomes all at the same time. You are focused and more effective. If you notice stress residing in your body—in your back or neck, for example—take advantage of the fact that just as your mind affects your body, your body affects your mind. Take a tenth of an hour to engage in some staid stretching, go for a walk or dance to your favorite ’70s disco tune. As you dial back the stress level, notice your mind becoming more creative with curiosity.
Now that you’ve primed yourself with a creative and curious mindset, more deeply explore solutions by identifying and challenging assumptions. Frequently ask, “What assumptions am I bringing to this problem?” Unveiling these assumptions is like peeling the layers of an onion. The more layers you peel back, the more layers you see and the more energized you’ll be with possibility.