Guidelines for ‘Adult’ Conversation, #4 – Recognizing and Suspending Preconceptions, Judgments and Assumptions

Previous essays in this series are available here: and here:

So, yes, culture (in the broadest view that includes race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, etc.), genetics, parenting, personal experience, health, trauma, propensity to learn, and many other factors lead us to hold certain preconceptions, judgments and assumptions about ourselves, others and the world. Some of these can be helpful in navigating our everyday lives: choosing to assume that many motor vehicle drivers are somewhat distracted (not necessarily, or just, with cell phones) by life in general can keep us safe – and both minimize the chances of overreacting when someone is careless and enhance the feelings of joy and gratitude when someone is unexpectedly courteous.

Arguably the most important words in the above example are “choosing to assume.” We don’t “know” that “every” driver is distracted, but if we choose to recognize the possibility that most (including ourselves) are, this choice allows us to be less reactive (sparing both us and other drivers from us) when someone is careless, and ridiculously grateful when someone is attentive. An intentional choice to assume, while it can be harmful or helpful, is easier to eliminate or enhance once we see the harm or help.

What we’re concerned with here are those preconceptions, judgments and assumptions that we haven’t chosen intentionally: more often than not, they have chosen us. They have us,* we don’t know it, and we think we’re seeing and hearing that other person, and the rest of the world, as he, she or it is, when we’re actually seeing and hearing who and as we are, filtered through all of those lenses noted in the first sentence above and in the previous three essays.

Obviously, this is not a new idea. Versions of it have been around for millennia: stop looking through that glass darkly, and get that plank out of your eye! Still, look at or listen to most ‘conversations’ in which people are disagreeing on issues across political (and other) divides – whether in the media, on social media, or in person, and whether they’re elected officials, news commentators, celebrities (or some combination of these three), social critics, ‘thought leaders’ or just ordinary folks, and most of them are certain that 1) they see things as things are, 2) they are correct, and 3) the opponent is wrong.

Now (I hope) the significance of essays #2’s and #3’s explorations of who we (think we) are in conversation is more apparent. Before we have any real chance of opening up and seeing and hearing another human being in conversation with even a basic level of authenticity and integrity, we need to have some idea of how our glass is dark, how dark it is, and what the dimensions and composition are of that plank, beam, log or speck that’s lodged in our own eye(s).

One way into this is to gain some clarity on a preconception, judgment or assumption we have, or that has us: why do we have it, or does it have us, and what’s the impact of the having? Byron Katie suggests asking ourselves these questions:**

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do I react when I think that thought (preconception, judgment or assumption)?
  4. Who would I be without this thought (preconception, judgment or assumption)?

That fourth question asks us to explore what it might be like to suspend our preconceptions, judgments and assumptions in conversation (or forever) – even if they are provably true (right now).

If I enter a conversation with strong beliefs about the superiority of the Yankees or the Red Sox (even my choosing sports and those two teams as examples tells you something about me), liberals or conservatives, gays or straights, wisdom or compassion, justice or mercy, etc., my chances for authentic, open dialogue will be limited or enhanced by the extent to which I voluntarily, accurately and thoroughly recognize and suspend – or permanently let go, the historical beliefs and assumptions (aka scripts, tapes, films, stories, narratives, etc.) that hold me.

This is difficult, essential work if we are to speak from our hearts with, and deeply listen to, each other. Perhaps (re)read the second essay in this series, return to the six bulleted responses to the events of September 11, 2001. For each, go a little deeper with the second reflection question posed there: note your reaction to each of the six points, and explore the preconceptions, judgments and assumptions you have, or that have you, that lead to your reaction.

Do this neither to prove yourself “right” or “wrong” but to explore and get to know yourself better.

In the next essay, we’ll consider the effects of avoiding insults, labels and/or sweeping generalizations in conversation.


*For more on the idea of having assumptions vs. being had by them, see Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.

**From “The Work” by Byron Katie. For some context, and a deeper dive into each question, visit   See also her Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. New York: Harmony, 2002.

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