“John and Alex are working on a client project together. They are not the best of friends and they have had some tensions in the past. Nowadays, they have established a basic, yet fragile, working level of trust. In a project meeting, they agree that Alex will call the client the next day to ask for some critical information. However, that evening John happens to run into the client while shopping at the grocery store. They chat for a while and in this relaxed setting the client shares some information with John that is critical for the project. Not only did he share the information that Alex would acquire the next day, but he also shares some additional information that the client would not have shared in a formal setting. Thrilled about this sensitive new information, John quickly sends an email to Alex to share it. Unfortunately, he forgets to mention the context of how he ran into the client.
After reading the email Alex is really upset. Why would John call the client, he wonders, is John bypassing him and doesn’t he trust him with the task? Alex is making a lot of assumptions and as the evening progresses he starts to assume that his career is more or less over. After all, John is also his boss. Finally, late in the evening, he sends an angry email to John. If John doesn’t trust him with tasks they agreed upon and prefers to perform them by himself, then Alex sees no reason to continue.”
What happened here?
Firstly, John is not very sensitive in his communication. In his enthusiasm about the connection with the client, he leaves out a very important part of his message: the context on how he got the information. Secondly, given their fragile working relation, John probably could have used another, more effective way of communication to share this news.
We know that email is not always the best tool for communication. However, in this case, the core of the problem is not even the medium they used to communicate. The core is the assumptions Alex started to make without clarifying, which made the situation worse. Alex could have picked up the phone and call John to check in with him. In fact, by making many assumptions, he was turning a positive client situation into a terrible personal one.
Making assumptions can be a killer for trust and teamwork. We all do it, we all make assumptions. Somehow this seems to be the default response mode that is hardwired in our brain. It might seem the easiest way forward, however, not the best way. How often are you guilty of making assumptions about something, believing it is the way you think it is, without clarifying it?
What would happen if we would rewire our brain and change our default response mode? What if we would pause after reading the message, take a deep breath and start challenging our assumptions before we respond. We can challenge our assumptions by asking a number of questions.
“Is that so?” is a simple question, challenging the validity of the assumption. It will help you to start the thinking process. When you combine it with a number of “W” questions you will start to question your own assumptions.
Alex could have asked himself questions like:
- WHY would John not trust me with the task?
- WHAT IF John did not call the client, but the client called him?
- WHAT can I do to clarify the situation and clear the air with John?
- HOW can we use the information John provided for the benefit of the project?
There are many more questions you can come up with that will help challenge the assumptions that Alex just made. It might be easier for a theoretical situation like the one described here, than it is in your own work situation. However, do try it the next time you feel the need to respond instantly: pause, take a deep breath and start questioning your assumptions before you respond!
Questioning can be a very powerful tool to solve problems and to come up with new ideas. In “A More Beautiful Question” * Warren Berger explores the power of questioning and describes using many cases how questioning can bring new business opportunities, reinvent industries and transform your life.