Your Assumptions May Cost You

In this bitterly cold weather, you have to be pretty strategic about where you park. Walking more than a block or two can be a chilling experience.

Yesterday, I felt I’d scored a huge victory when I found an empty spot mere yards from my meeting place. I put my credit card into the parking machine, waited a moment for it to process, and was just about to hit “Maximum Time” when I noticed something.  The clock on the meter said it was three hours earlier than it actually was. Had I printed the ticket, it would have expired before I had even attended my meeting.

I made an assumption that parking meters always reflect the right time. And that could have cost me. 

We all make assumptions that prove wrong, and leaders are no different. One of the most common I see among executive leaders like you is this:

You assume that because you are speaking, you are communicating.

And that’s absolutely not true. When you speak, you are spouting words. You are transmitting, just like a radio station transmits sound waves.

Communication, unlike transmitting, has to be two-way. You are only communicating if your words are received.

And as an executive leader, even that does not go far enough. Unless what you say is both received AND acted upon, you will fail to advance your leadership goals and objectives. At best, it will be a lost opportunity. At worst, you can do yourself and your organization damage.

There’s a lot that goes into speaking so that your words are received and acted upon. And it may not be what you think.

For example, the latest research has disproven the old adage that “you have to speak at a 6th grade level for others to understand you.”

Again, not true. How many of your employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders have only a 6th grade education —  or think at that level? 

It’s not about talking down to people. Rather, it’s about speaking to them at the level of understanding they have on a subject or issue. 

That’s sometimes tough for executive leaders who operate at a high level of capability and complexity.  Where others may only be able to see a few feet down the road, executive leaders can see as much as 20 years into the future. So the danger is that they assume their audiences have the same perspective and insight — and they don’t. 

As a result, executive leaders either overload their communications with irrelevant detail or provide information insufficient to fill any gaps in understanding. In both cases, executive leaders fail to communicate in the way that others can understand, let alone respond.

So here’s what to do before you even open your mouth to speak:

Don’t just assume others will understand you. Know exactly where your audience is on a certain issue, and speak to them at that level of understanding and detail.  

Do not let your assumptions cost you an opportunity to advance your goals and objectives.  Questioning your assumptions will lead to more effective dialogue and better engagement, and yield the highest return on the investment of your valuable time.