Assume No More: 5 Questions to Help You Learn Someone's Perspective
July 13, 2018
I like to think I'm pretty good at reading my sister. I can tell you what she's going to order seconds after we open a restaurant menu, and when she needs me to step in and take charge of vacation plans. But a few weeks ago, we had a bit of a miscommunication. We'd planned to meet at a beach partway between our two cities. But when the time came to get together, she was MIA. Calls went unanswered, texts ignored.
Because we know one another so well, I figured I knew just what she was thinking: She didn't want to go to the beach, and instead of communicating she was freezing me out. I stayed home and sulked, waiting for her to resurface and apologize, as I knew she would. It wasn't until we spoke later that I learned she'd broken up with her boyfriend and spent the morning watching Southern Charm on the couch, her phone (and therefore her ex's texts) on silent.
I felt awful—and a little confused. I'd tried to understand her actions, so why didn't it work? How had I been so off-base? Turns out, my mistaken assumption isn’t such a surprise.
A recent study found that we're not nearly as good at understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings as we think we are—when we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we often make assumptions based on our own biases rather than the other person’s reality.
Researchers ran 25 experiments asking participants to make a series of predictions and decisions based on how another person might be thinking. What they found: Our assuming and presuming doesn't get us very far. Having an IRL conversation is the most accurate way to gain someone's perspective.
It makes sense. How many times have you assumed a friend was flaking on dinner plans because they secretly hate you—only to find out they were sorting through some major drama? Instead of guessing at how someone else might feel—and then acting upon those assumptions—the study authors suggest taking a simpler tack: asking questions.
"We incorrectly presume that taking someone else's perspective will help us understand and improve interpersonal relationships," the study authors write in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "If you want an accurate understanding of what someone is thinking or feeling, don't make assumptions, just ask."
Even if you see yourself as non-judgemental, psychologist Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D.—who did not work on the study—tells Shine it’s human nature to let your own life get in the way of understanding someone else’s situation.
“Asking questions is essential to understanding how another person is feeling,” Cohen says. “The majority of our interactions are based on assumptions rather that facts. This is problematic because assumptions are based on our personal feelings at that moment.”
Her example: Imagine, she says, that you’re walking out of a spin class when someone cuts you off at the door. Because you’re high on endorphins and feeling good, you’d likely assume they’re in a rush and let it go. But if someone cuts you off as you bring your broken phone to the Apple store (aka not the most cheerful time) you’d think the person was incredibly rude. The situation hasn’t changed, but your reaction to is has based on your emotional state.
“When (mentally) putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are more likely getting more comfortable in our own (assumptions)," Cohen says. "By asking questions, we can chip away at our assumptions with actual facts coming from our friend or loved one.”
The right questions may come to you during a conversation with a friend, loved one, or coworker. If you’re stumped, try a few of Cohen’s suggestions.
1. "How are you feeling these days?"
This is a great chance to understand what your friend is thinking—and the nuance of the human mind. “It’s not a black or white question” Cohen says. “When you assume someone feels only one way about something, you shut them off from sharing their more complex feelings. We want to give the gift of allowing others the ability to share their whole experience.”
Cohen sometimes listens to what her friends and clients say, then summarizes it back to them. Give it a try to be sure you’re understanding correctly and so your pal feels heard.
2. "Is this experience as you expected?"
If your partner or friend seems fazed by a decision or an outing that took a turn, ask them about it. The way you see a certain scenario—say, adding friends you never see to your dinner reservation—might be wildly different than the way they see it.
What you might assume is your partner’s bad attitude could be frustration over lost one-on-one time or an unknown history with said friends.
3. “Why do you say that?”
Talking things through only works if you understand one another. If you find yourself bristling at a friend’s statement, don’t assume they have bad intentions. There’s a chance you’ve misinterpreted something they’ve said or you don’t have the full story. Keep digging until you get where they’re coming from—without filling in the blanks yourself.
4. “What can I do to help?”
Ever jump into hero mode, only to realize you’ve made things worse? We often assume we know just what someone needs even if they’re telling us otherwise. Avoid this mistake by asking how to help. It’s as simple as it sounds: Just ask what someone needs, then do it—even if you think you know better.
5. "What do you wish people asked you more about?”
If you still feel like you’re asking the wrong questions, try this one. If your friend, for example, just lost a parent, they may want to talk about how they’ll care for their remaining parent—or about their upcoming bathroom renovation.
Check your expectations and assumptions at the door and try to just listen.
Read next: 10 Ways to Be a Better Speaker and Listener