Checking Your Assumptions – Part I of II By: Misti Burmeister

“How well we communicate is determined not by how well we say things, but how well we are understood.” -Andrew Grove

You know what they say about assuming, right? Well, after more than a decade in the field of leadership development, even I still stick my foot in my mouth from time to time. I recently choked on it a little, but I (and the woman I unintentionally offended) walked away from the incident without any permanent injuries – and with a lot to think about.

I was giving a speech at a local university to a group of 40 executive master of business administration (EMBA) students – mostly executives from large organizations going back to school in their free time.

Just before any speech or presentation, I enjoy getting to know my audience a bit. I walk around, introduce myself and ask questions about their roles and organizations, why they came to the presentation and what they would like to get out of attending.T

here were four big tables in the room, and everyone was grabbing a quick bite to eat before I got started. I began at the table in the front – introducing myself to a fun group who were excited to be there, delighted to share about themselves and anxious to learn about generational differences.

I moved to the second table with excitement and enthusiasm! One woman who worked for a non-profit in the area explained to me that her organization offers loans to people of XYZ religion. To gain clarification, I repeated back to her what I’d heard her say – but I hadn’t gotten it quite right. Silly me, I thought she said her non-profit offers financial assistance to people who come to the U.S. who are of that religion. Unbeknownst to me, the lady sitting next to her was of that religion and was born and raised in the U.S. She raised her voice and said, “You know there are people of that religion who were born in the U.S.” I had clearly offended her. Though I didn’t want to leave things tense and was still unclear about the mission of the non-profit, I knew that in order to keep my energy in a great place before speaking I needed to move on from that table.

After my speech, when most everyone had left, she came up to me and let me know that as an expert in communication, I should know more about the many different religions. I truly wanted to gain a greater comprehension of what she was talking about, so I asked her to help me understand.

She explained that the mission of the non-profit was to provide loan assistance to those of XYZ faith. The non- profit provides this assistance because it is literally against the religion to pay interest rates. So, in order to ensure people of this religion are able to purchase a home, the non-profit provides funds to cover it.

I thanked her for educating me and requested that she consider one thing: to assume people usually mean well. The last thing I – and most people – want to do is offend anyone. People, by-in-large, have good intentions; they sometimes simply don’t understand how they are coming across. And if we focus on enlightening those who open their mouths and insert their high heels, we accomplish so much more than when we simply get angry.

In the next newsletter, I will share a story of how I made a poor assumption that led to a disaster – and three tips for avoiding the trap of assuming.

Rock on! Warmly, Misti