Is to not do it. Don’t go there. Just don’t.
There is this thing we human beings do. And we do it well – we assume we know people better than they know themselves. Not being the other person does come with a privilege – we can stand across them and see their blind spots much more vividly than they can. This, however, does not make us experts on who they are.
People are not blank pages that we arrive to write on with our fluffy fountain pens. They come with a lot of intricate stories tied to their past. They come with their own bags of experiences and awareness of the muddy paths they have trod. People come with themselves. And this is what they offer to us.
But in its organic form it is quite perplexing for us mostly because where on earth do we fit these people who are so different from us and so imperfect? Which cupboard in our mind could we shelve them?
It is sometimes uncomfortable to find spaces within us for people to occupy just as they are. And so we pick up hammers and start chipping away at the self they present to us until we can shave off all the excess bits that don’t agree with us. And so we construct our own version of who and why they are and the reasons they act the way they do.
There are different kinds of assumptions. There is the kind we do when we have never met the person before but because of all the whispers we have heard in the hallways we come to a conclusion about this person. Then there is the kind we do with people we know where instead of clarifying facts with them we simply find it easier to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Both types are hideous. The latter perhaps is more dangerous in the big and small squeezes of poisons it brings into our relationships.
Assumptions give us the power to hurt others by constructing them in a way that may not be entirely accurate or true. They can cause pain and misunderstandings because to assume something about someone is essentially to impute motives particularly to what they do and what they are. It is saying I know who you are regardless of what you say to me. It is at the core, misrepresenting and twisting a person’s self.
Assumptions reveal a failing in how we listen. Are we truly listening to what the other person is saying or are we hearing what we want to hear? Are we asking for clarification when we don’t understand or are we going to seek that clarity by talking to someone else about that person?
Make no mistake, our minds will make short cuts that help us make judgements about situations in life; and we are built to discern people and the fruits they produce. Making assumptions is different. It is an active speculation which sometimes involves sitting around a table with coffee and dissecting other human beings. I know this can’t be a lovely thing because I get a sickening feeling at the thought of being a subject for discussion on the table when I am not there to speak on my own behalf.
It’s easy to make assumptions, I know. We seem to come hard wired for it. Doing the opposite is much harder. It demands that we be brave and ask people the deep stuff; it is looking someone in the eye and asking that question that may fill the gap in our perception of them. It means we listen to what they have to say for themselves, holding the pieces of themselves they offer to us with grace and compassion. It requires us to embrace a kind of raw, crazy love that looks for the good in people first and wraps their brokenness in tender swaddles that heal not bruise.
I think we can align ourselves in the path of this kind of love. To become hard wired for it.
While it is true that what other people think of us is none of our business, it is also true that what we think of others has the power to harm their reputation, their integrity and their core. Perhaps it starts here, with the intention and commitment to do right by each other in our thoughts and in our attitudes.