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The Tricky Role of Assumptions in Negotiation and Decision-Making.

Assumptions prevent you from seeing the truth that is right in front of you. Border Town, 4/2020

Assumptions are made fast and unconsciously.

(Blog sections: General, Erroneous, Effective, Questioning and Conclusion)

Of course, most have heard that old saying: Do not assume. It makes an ___ out of you and me. This is clever and oh, could it be that simple in negotiation and decision-making. But alas, as in most issues, it is most complex and could be considered to be an art: The art of managing assumptions.

So, let’s make this assumption: People make scores of assumptions daily. Most, are not important and do not change the direction of one’s life or decision-making.

There are other assumptions that are vital. One needs to be able to discern those and discern via research and preparation whether this is a good assumption or erroneous.

The Four Elements of Agreement-Wisdom Book, Don Miguel Ruiz

-Assumptions are made fast and unconsciously

-We make assumption that everyone sees life the way we do.

-The way to check assumptions is to ask questions.

-We believe these Assumptions are true. We believe they are the truth.

Erroneous Assumptions.

Important Erroneous Assumption Example: I mediated an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) discrimination case. This case arose from Complainant © believing that for seven years the Respondent ® was discriminating against him each time the C applied for a different position within the company. During the private session, I advised C to simply ask R in the joint session. He did. R immediately called a break and came back minutes later with 5 documents.

At this company, if one applies for another position, one must inform the present supervisor. The supervisor must approve the next step. In this case, R produced 5 documents that R had enthusiastically approved each of C’s potential moves.

C was shocked since C had created the department’s computer program. Would not the department fall apart without C? R merely responded that the department would be fine because C had trained another person about the program.

Isn’t this sad. Seven years ago, C could have had a direct conversation with R to discover that R really wanted to get rid of C and happily approved each potential move.

Example: You don’t have to like me to work with me.

For over fifty years I have worked in the workplace. I have delivered workplace training in negotiation, mediation, business communication and executive coaching. I flowed along with the mantra: You don’t have to like me to work with me; You don’t have to like me to be on my team.

Several years ago, I was persuaded that this was an erroneous assumption. I was persuaded by renown Author John Maxwell, Thinking for a Change. One book chapter is entitled, How to Make People Like You. He lists six behaviors to get people to like you. For example,

-Be positive

-Put yourself in their place

-Remember their name, etc.

These were the exact behaviors that I was already teaching in my classes.

Further, he begins the chapter by, During the good times, people work with those they like; During the bad times, people work with people they like.

So, this quote and these behaviors persuaded me that I want people to like me in the workplace. Research also shows that people are more persuaded by others that they at least, like, if not trust.

Example: Author Dale Carnegie is a wheeler-dealer negotiator.

For many decades I have been aware of Famous Author Dale Carnegie and his seminal book: How to Win Friends and Influence Others. I erroneously assumed that he approached negotiation in “a wheeler dealer” sort of way different than what I teach.

One day while at the AMA (American Management Association) for the first time, I picked up his book and reviewed it. I realized that his approach to negotiation was similar to mine: mutual goal-oriented approach.

Today, I cite his book in most of my courses.


-Many believe the larger the microwave oven, the more wattage. Not so.

-One Foreign Visitor in my class indicated that when people wore perfume, they had not taken a shower that morning.

-My Sister while visiting the District of Columbia was noting older men biking. She said that in Ohio when you see an older man riding a bike, you assume that he has had a DUI (Driving Under Intoxication).

Are We Making Erroneous Assumptions That Consumers Know What They Want?

On TEDTalk, Malcolm Gladwell spoke of Howard Moskowitz (HM), a psychophysicist (measures things). Companies assumed for many decades that consumers know what they like but….Campbell Soup who produces Prego Spaghetti Sauce wanted to outdo their competitor Ragu. They hired HM. HM learned that focus groups etc. may not be the answer. He created extra chunky spaghetti sauce that became a best seller, but consumers had not thought about chunky so they never requested such. One third (1/3) of folks love chunky so this is a perfect sauce for the perfect individual’s tastes.

When people are asked about coffee, many of them say they love robust, dark, rich coffee but 2/3 of the folks actually like watery, milked coffee. They just don’t want to admit it.

More erroneous assumption examples:

-Did I serve in the military example: Many participants in my classes assume that I have been in the military based on my short haircut style and my constant use of timers for exercises, breaks, etc.

-Am I traveling example: In DC, I do not own a car so I bike. I usually have two backpacks: one, on my back and the other, a rolling type. Most people when they see me ask about “my travels” assuming that I am traveling. Of course, I am not. The rolling backpack contains newspapers and books, etc.

-Trick pencil example: In many of my classes, I conduct this exercise. I call it a writing exercise (a diversion). I hold up a pencil and ask participants to describe this object in one sentence or phrase. The responses typically are like this:

--Yellow sharpened #2 writing instrument with lead and erasure.

In actuality, this is a trick pencil made of rubber. It does not write or erase.

These three examples above are unimportant assumptions.

Book: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell-erroneous paths

I cite this fantastic book in all of my classes. In a section of this book, Gladwell describes how our first impression assumptions, possibly guided by intuition, gut reaction can steer us down erroneous paths.

A stirring example is his hair style. After his one book, The Tipping Point, he decided to abandon short cropped hair and let his hair grow out, “wildly.” Suddenly, he was stopped by the traffic police, called to the side by TSA officers, and looked at cautiously by passersby. This weird power of first impressions including assumptions led them to stereotype leading them to wrong headed decision-making.

Effective Assumptions that Help to Navigate Life.

I make the assumption: People do things and say things that make sense to them at the time.

This assumption has served me well over the years.

If other people do not understand certain behaviors or words, they need to place themselves in the shoes of that person or put their head on their shoulders to understand. One does not need to agree. One simply needs to get to the point of saying, If I were in their shoes, I understand why they would say or do whatever they have said or done.

Silly Example: I have been teaching at the American Management Association (AMA) for 27 years. At the Virginia center, I always uses the lobby bathroom rather than the AMA bathroom. Often I present this example to the class and ask them why I do this.

They speculate:

-Maybe the bathroom is cleaner.

-Maybe, more proximate.

-Maybe, more private away from his class participants.

Those are excellent speculations. The reason? I try to brush my teeth several times per day. The lobby bathroom has faucets that one can turn off and one; the AMA bathroom has automatic faucets-very challenging to brush teeth using them.

Book: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, impressions leading to effective decision-making.

The thrust of this book is to trust more our first impressions, our intuition, our gut reactions more than what most Americans do. These are subconscious assumptions and impressions based on our life experiences and learnings. If you have the time, once you recognize these, do the research and more likely than not, your first impressions-assumptions are usually right.

He outlines many examples where first impressions serve us well.

-A therapist predicting whether marriages will endure.

-People first impressions predicting whether patients will sue in medical malpractice cases.

-People predicting accurately the evaluation of professor’s teaching after five minutes of observation.

Gladwell calls the art assumptions, “thin-slicing.” So, based on life experiences, we have scores of first impressions and we need to decide which assumptions are accurate.

Why do folks not use a broad range of questioning types? Maybe, Assumptions?

Ray served as a prosecutor for five years. He was in charge of the intake of criminal complaints and mediation. After about a year, he noticed that he was really only asking “direct” questions. Direct questions are those that can be answered in one or two words. They are used to clarify after one has the big picture.


-Are you married?

-Do you have children?

-What color is your car?

-When did you buy the house?

-Do you have a lease?

Ray then realized that he was cataloging the cases, the complaints as if all, “the big picture’ was basically the same. He realized he was doing a disservice to each complainant because each story was different. He was making assumption and then merely clarifying.

So instead of thinking this is just another landlord/tenant case or neighborhood dispute or family quarrel, he began asking “open questions” to get the big picture from the complainant’s perspective.


-What happened?

-What is your situation?

-How did this occur?

He began to discover that sometimes the so-called landlord/tenant relationship actually was not; or that neighbors were not really neighbors; or that the so-called family relationship was more complex. This realization set the stage for a different step in problem solving.

Conclusion: Forget the age old saying about assuming. Note that we make many assumptions daily. Most are unimportant. The art is discerning which ones are important. Which ones might affect our decision making? Once we identify those, it is time to research and ask questions. We may find that many of our long held assumptions are erroneous. More likely than not our assumptions will be found to be right based on our life experiences and intuition, but we only know that based on our extensive research. If they prove to be right, then go forth.


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