The 1 Assumption You Always Should Make

The 1 Assumption You Always Should Make

You already know that there are assumptions that can get a leader into trouble. These include:

• Assuming that everyone on your team knows why the work they are doing is important (they don't unless the tie-in to a bigger goal has been clearly stated and reinforced by frequent example).

• Assuming that your team knows why a project was successful (they may not be clear about which aspects were due to strategy and which to lucky circumstance).

• Assuming that your team knows how to fail successfully (they may be more likely to place blame unless you have a team process to examine set-backs for valuable learning opportunities).

• Assuming that people know why you came to a particular conclusion (they won't unless you let them in on your thinking process).

• Assuming that everyone on your team feels valued, trusted, and safe (they won't unless you have created an emotionally nurturing work environment).

• Assuming you have people's commitment (which is difficult to know unless you ask directly, "Are you with me?").

But not all assumptions are harmful. In fact, there is one assumption that I advise leaders to always make. You should assume that at least one person didn't understand what you said. Some of the biggest problems in business communication happen because we believe that we are being clear. We're not. At least, not to everyone.

One thing I've noticed with many of the leaders I coach is that even when they aren't clearly communicating, their staff rarely says, "I don't understand." Instead, people try to guess what the leader really wants.

Your job as a communicator - especially if you are a leader - is to constantly clarify what you mean. Never take it for granted that your audience understands you. They may be nodding their heads as if they are absorbing your thoughts, they may be taking notes, and they might even be able to feed back to you exactly what you said. All of which means that they heard your words, but not necessarily the intent or meaning of your message. A great communicator follows up important statements with clarifying phrases such as: 

   “Here’s what I mean by that …”

   “Here are the implications of what I’m talking about …”

   “Here’s how I came to this conclusion …”

   “Let me give you an example of (a story about) what I’m saying …”

   “Here’s another way of looking at the situation …”

Of course, putting ideas into simple, jargon-free words also helps, as does the use of metaphor and analogy to tie new concepts into references that are more familiar. But one of my favorite techniques is one I use when there is a lull in the Q & A portion after a speech. I'll say: "Here's a question I am often asked . . ." Then I ask and answer my own question.

To improve your leadership effectiveness the next time you chair a meeting, try this: Assume that someone on your team didn't understand what you just said, and take that extra step to clarify and explain.

Any questions?

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  • Lars Gundersen

    So true !

  • Matthew Gonzales

    I find the subject under discussion very relevant

  • John Wetton

    Exactly what I needed to read as of late.

  • Isaac Iwaszewski

    Good article

  • Paul E. Sandman

    Out of the box thoughts

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Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Leadership Expert

Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence." and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at

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