Those Damned Assumptions

I have a reputation of making people feel awkward, or as some would describe it, infuriated (stop nodding so feverishly, you may lose your balance!). I take a particular pride in knowing that I am viewed this way, because it merely cements my views about the nature of the average Joe that I meet on a daily basis. This came to the fore a few weeks ago in a discussion that I had with a colleague which subsequently spilled online as well.

I often feel compelled to challenge incorrect assumptions, or to persist in a point that I believe is important until I am certain that I have reached a point of mutual understanding, or at the least, am able to walk away knowing that I tried. So I choose my battles, but I also choose more battles than most (I can see you nodding again!). On this one occasion, I spent a fair amount of time trying to get someone to understand why the point that they were making was actually contrary to what they were trying to achieve. And so I kept asking probing questions and prompting them to consider an alternate perspective so that they may realise what it is that they were doing.

Some in the room came to me afterwards and suggested that I really shouldn’t bother. Some assumed that I was being argumentative or just simply difficult (stop it already!). Meanwhile, the truth was far from both of those assumptions. While I speak for myself right now, I suspect that many others may be able to relate to what I am about to share.

When I engage with anyone on any subject, my default assumption is that they are capable of processing the concepts and themes that I feel passionately about. As the discussion progresses, if I see that they’re not grasping my point, I assume that I’m either not explaining myself well enough, or they’re distracted by a bias that is not directly relevant to what I am trying to share with them. My knee-jerk reaction to this is to try to clarify my point so that they may be able to share in the value of what I think is important. In short, I assume we’re at the same level of understanding, but are experiencing a communication gap.

Unfortunately, the most common assumption in such a situation, especially by those with a low self-esteem, is that my efforts to attain clarity is in fact an attempt to either make them look stupid, or expose how stupid they really are. At no point do they consider that perhaps I simply assumed that their level of understanding was the same as mine, rather than me assuming that they’re beneath me. Their perceptions of themselves informed their observations of me, and while they thought they were judging me, they were in fact judging themselves.

Of course, if  I were to point this out to them (as I do on occasion, often just for fun!) they would feel justified in their views about my supposed arrogance, or condescension. The turning point in my life regarding my self-worth was when I realised this troublesome truth about people. From that point on, I found it easier to rise above the unqualified criticisms leveled against me, and instead, continued to focus on the passion that I had about the value that I wanted to realise for me and for others. Often, this resulted in the offended party recognising the point I originally tried to make, but only after they had enough time to get over their own insecurities about the interaction. For this reason, I almost always do my best to allow for a graceful exit from such contentious discussions.

The times that I don’t allow for a graceful exit are the times when the offending moron is pretty much a confirmed bully who just won’t back down. That’s when my favourite philosophy kicks in. Treat an arrogant person with arrogance so that they may taste humility.

Back to the topic at hand. Assumptions are made all the time. Some are informed, most are not. Another poor assumption on my part when I originally started contemplating writing books on leadership and mentoring others at the office to take leadership roles in their areas of influence was that in doing so, I may work myself into a position of irrelevance. In other words, like the fickle-minded, I thought that I was working myself out of a job. You know, that scarcity mentality thing where we assume that the success of others will rob us of opportunities for our own success? Well, fortunately I snapped out of that mindset soon thereafter when I realised that leadership is so rare because conviction is lacking in most people.

In general, people want to be associated with greatness, not because they want to be great, but because they want to be with the crowd that is also associated with such greatness. One of the important lessons I learnt in the process is that despite giving someone the golden handbook of how to achieve greatness, and giving then the opportunity and environment in which to achieve it, their deeply ingrained insecurities will prevent them from embracing the opportunity. Everyone wants to be liked, or popular, or part of a group. Except for a few that see the futility in that, and decide to forge their own path in life. They don’t necessarily set out to be leaders. In fact, I would go as far as saying that leadership finds them, while everyone else tries to mimic the assumed journey of the new leader in the hope that they will achieve the same.

People that set out to become leaders usually lack authenticity. Authenticity is by far the most important leadership trait ever. In the absence of it, you simply have authority and resources at your disposal, but will fail to genuinely influence or inspire others, except for those that aspire to similar levels of materialism. Perhaps this is why we have the leadership void that we have in this world. Perhaps this is why the worst of us has truly become the leaders of us, because we celebrate the wrong attributes, and dismiss the detractors that challenge the status quo.

We make assumptions negatively about others when we assume that their flaws are the same as our own, while not being willing to acknowledge or own our own flaws. Criticism that has little to no constructive basis behind it simply feeds the ego. It does not encourage growth, nor does it forge new avenues of understanding. When someone takes the time to extend their engagement with you about a topic that they are passionate about, recognise their passion before assuming that they’re simply being arrogant. The biggest mistake most people make is that they fail to recognise the difference between passion and emotion, and are too ready to dismiss a passionate soul as an emotional being. That is the burden on society of a weak mind. It degrades sincerity in favour of popularity. And that is how society ends up being something that everyone wants to criticise, but no one wants to acknowledge being an integral part of it.

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