How Assumptions Lead to Conflict

Alan Alda gave the commencement speech for his daughter Eve’s graduation. In his speech, he stated, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” We all have assumptions that cloud the way we view situations. When we allow our assumptions to become facts, the ability to see distinctions in how we think and how other people process information can become lost. This type of clouded thinking is almost always the starting point for conflict.


Conflict from assumptions usually starts when thoughts alone become the foundation of a shared belief system. You first see the gloomy beginnings of a struggle when you, a co-worker, or a leader become frustrated or upset without first making sure that there is a collective understanding of the event or situation. Just because you believe something to be true does not mean that you are looking at the full, shared truth. That truth is based on facts and mutual agreements. The narrative in a conflict interaction based on assumptions may start with statements such as “that’s not the way we do it” or “you’re doing it the wrong way.” These types of messages may be followed by the blame game—that is deciding who did the work incorrectly without looking at the logical trail for how the work was assigned or needed to be completed. For instance, a manager may tell two of his employees that third team member is responsible for one part of the project. The two employees move forward with their part thinking that this other team member is completing the rest of the project. The project lead forgets to tell the other team member about his part, and so later that week, the two employees find they do not have a portion of the task done. The third team member does not even know that there was another part of the project he was responsible for. A conflict occurs because the three employees focus on what was not done instead of first clearing up the assumptions and finding a path forward. 


Assumptions can also cause emotional conflicts in a workplace. For example, you may be in a meeting and notice someone is frowning in your general direction. Do you check in with the co-worker afterwards? Or do you assume that the person is scowling at you, decide they do not like you, and start to avoid them? If you take the second path, your co-worker may notice that you are not engaging in the same way since the meeting, and potentially the avoidance becomes a two-way street. These assumptions, in turn, impact others that work with you both. Of course, the conflict may have been avoided by asking right away what the true intent behind the frown was. It could be that the employee initially frowned because they were thinking about how to solve a project issue. 


What we think dictates how we act. How we act determines how much power assumptions have in creating conflict. Managing assumptions is a difficult task, and we all have assumptions that challenge our ability to hit the mark. A recent Financially Simple blog post discussed the role of assumptions in the business world. The author equated the managing of assumptions to trying to make a bullseye, but tossing a dart from behind. You consider the options before throw it. Sometimes you hit the center point, but there are other times when you cross your fingers unsure of where you’ll land. You never really know how an assumption will find its way into a situation. Perhaps you have to adjust with the next throw.


The added challenge is that managing your assumptions usually takes a back seat to maintaining projects as you get caught up in work that needs to be completed and the complexities of daily tasks. The ratio of time invested between work activities and managing assumptions works well if you find methods that integrate the ways other people think with your perception. Conflict can come in; however, when these assumptions are not addressed on a personal or collective level.


In a recent article, Dan Trommater, a magician and chief empathy officer, offers some helpful ways to reduce assumptions, in turn increasing a direct team communication. These behaviors include asking for more information, responding with a picture of the larger view, looking for positive intentions, and finding shared understanding. Individuals and groups that exhibit these types of behaviors find less conflict arises because beliefs are maintained in concert with the daily work they are performing. Maintenance of assumptions keeps the windows clean, and as a part of your daily work routine,  can shine a little light on a miscommunication before it becomes a conflict.

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Written by Dr. Lynette Reed
Writer, researcher and advisor on human potential for personal and organizational development, Dr. Lynette Reed has mentored people from in businesses, not-for-profits, schools, allied health agencies, chambers of commerce, government and churches. She has taught courses on team building, leadership, ethics, world religion and world cultures. Her current literary contributions include an executive summary paperback titled, Fixing the Problem: Making Changes in How You Deal with Challenges, as well as book contributions, articles, guest radio appearances and a series of children's books with Abingdon Press. She is also a co-founder and board member of the Institute for Soul-Centered Leadership at Seton Cove. Lynette holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality, Sustainability, and Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Master of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Contact her at
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