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4 Steps to Clarify Your Assumptions in a Conflict

We may talk about the importance of not making assumptions, but we all make them, automatically, all the time.

We tend to believe that other people are more like us than not, which explains some of why we feel so outraged in a conflict situation, when “they” don’t do things, want, feel, speak, behave, or care approximately the same way we do.

It’s normal to assume that other people are the same as we are (despite the fact that they’re disagreeing intensely), and then wonder what’s wrong with their reaction — what’s wrong with them — because the “right” view is so clear to us. But this line of thinking leads to entrenchment of views, and the accompanying attacks or withdrawals.

Operating Under the Assumption

Here’s some of the faulty logic that operates just below consciousness:

  • We’re both good people; we both have good intentions; so naturally we both think the same thoughts (roughly) despite our apparent differences in upbringing, job, religion, personal taste, etc.
  • I’ve just declared the way I look at something: the normal/correct/right way.
  • Despite our thinking the same thoughts (see above) and therefore knowing the normal/correct/right way, this person is thinking/doing something else!
  • What’s wrong with them?!?
  • I can’t let this go on. I must bring them back to the right path…

If both sides are reacting like this, they become more fixed in their opposing takes on the situation. So when you’re explaining your point of view, it helps to think of the person you’re having the conflict with as someone from another culture, because in a sense they are.

You’re not assessing things the same way they are, and you’re not living out the same expectations set; instead, you’re manifesting uncomfortable differences. Once you recognize that the other person is different from you it will be easier to recognize the need to make your underlying assumptions explicit.

Show Your Cards

Making assumptions explicit doesn’t mean using them as weapons (“I assume you never cared about X”). It means using them to make sure the other person can understand where you’re coming from (“I’m concerned that you might not have known about my view of X”). If you explain well, and the other person is open and listens well, then they may be able to see things from your perspective.

Here’s a way to approach this kind of conversation as a respectful partner (you have to use your own words, of course):

  1. Here’s what I want and why (concrete description).
  2. I also want you to understand my thinking so you can incorporate it into your view, although I don’t expect to take precedence over your view (respectful request for attention and understanding).
  3. Here are all the built-in assumptions I carry around that have convinced me that I should be able to have it this way (full disclosure about your own beliefs and prejudices).
  4. Now that you’ve heard my behind-the-scenes thinking, in what ways are you or are you not convinced? (Probe to see if you’re making yourself clear and if there’s any progress.)

This process might seem a little stilted, and it is — that’s because it’s artificial. It takes a lot of practice to make it feel more natural. Here’s an alternative approach, which runs through the same stages, but frames them a little differently:

  1. Here’s an example of how I think things could work, and the assumptions that are behind my request.
  2. Are you comfortable with my example? Did it make sense to you?
  3. Are all my assumptions clear?
  4. So what’s your reaction to the approach I’m taking?

The funny thing about really clarifying your assumptions: Every once in a while you may find that you don’t need to make the point that you thought was so important when the confrontation began, or that you don’t really need the outcome you were previously convinced you absolutely had to have. Sometimes our assumptions are faulty or incomplete — even when they’re about ourselves.

Onward and upward,


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