Beware Presumptions

While presumptions can simplify life, beware! They are equally likely to produce unintended results.


I was helping a friend develop a marketing message. I offered a number of suggestions based on what I presumed to be the interests of his market. Later, as I reflected on our conversation, I realized that I hadn’t asked him any questions about his market or results of previous attempts to reach that market. In that moment I realized how often we act on presumptions that could be, and often are, erroneous.

Understanding presumptions

Presumptions arise naturally based upon our prior experiences. They’re insidious in that we don’t realize that we’re making presumptions or that we are doing so without exploring both sides of the issue.

In the situation outlined above, I offered advice with realizing that I:

  1. Had no idea of what had previously worked for him.
  2. Didn’t know what fears, anxiety and frustration the C-level people in his target market were experiencing.
  3. Don’t like working with the market he’s serving. His market is larger organizations while mine was small to mid-sized companies.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

Previous results

I had no idea what previous attempts he’d made. Nor did I have any idea of what results his efforts produced. Absent this knowledge, how could I have reached the conclusion that my advice was going to be beneficial to him…to produce better results than he’d previously gotten? The simple answer is that I could only reach that conclusion by presuming that my prior experience was relevant…without the benefit of thorough analysis.

Fears, anxiety and frustration

Over the years, I had intentionally avoided the market he served; consequently, there was no way that I could know what his market’s concerns are. I presumed that they were the same as those of the smaller, mid-sized businesses that I preferred. While In some instances that may be true; I sense that there are other motivations at work in large organizations…motivations that I can only presume exist because I have no first-hand knowledge on which to base my presumption.

Dislike the market

I mentioned that I had intentionally avoided the market he served. My experience with large organizations, albeit limited, was that they are heavily bureaucratic, slow moving, fear-based in their decision making and unrealistic in their approaches. In other words, their modus operandi isn’t aligned with my results-oriented, quick analysis, quick decision-making approach…the  hallmark of small to mid-sized businesses.

That doesn’t make my approach right and theirs wrong or vice versa. It simply means that the likelihood of success for either of us, the large organization or me, is extremely small. Given these facts, it’s easy to see how my presumptions about the interests of C-level people in large organizations can be completely off the mark.

Now that we have a sense for why I suggest that we beware of presumptions, let’s examine a better approach for dealing with situations we face.

For you

Presumptions are like emotions; they’re automatic responses to the situations we face. We naturally draw upon prior experiences to help us deal with the current situation. Since you can’t prevent presumptions from arising, allow them to occur as they naturally would, then pause.

During that pause ask yourself “What am I overlooking? What information am I missing that might alter the approach my presumptions suggest?” During my reflection on the presumptions mentioned above, I realized that I didn’t know my friend’s market, I didn’t know the concerns that the leaders in his market experienced and I didn’t even like working with his market.

Those are some really huge deficiencies in my knowledge and yet I offered him advice. I’m sure that you’ll agree, this is not the way to treat anyone…much less a friend.

If you want to be of value to others, and your community, develop the habit of challenging your presumptions. You can do this by simply beginning each day reminding yourself that you won’t offer advice until you’ve asked yourself:

  • What am I overlooking?
  • What information am I missing?

Each evening, before retiring, review your successes. If your review uncovers times when you weren’t as successful as you’d hoped to be, ask yourself “What did I learn that will help me be more effective in the future?”

Continue these exercises until your mind automatically functions this way…typically within a week or two.

For our kids

As the kids in your life make presumptions, ask them “What are you overlooking? What information are you missing that might alter your approach to this situation?” As they rethink their position, they’ll realize that their initial reaction is flawed and that they need to take time to analyze the situation before acting. Learning to be aware of their presumptions is a lesson that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

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2 Responses

  1. Bill Prenatt

    Dale, As always excellent insights! Through experience I have learned to differentiate between what I know and what I just think I know! It seems to help me avoid situations like the one that you described 🙂

    • dfurtwengler

      It’s unfortunate that we learn these lessons the hard way, but at least we learned them. Now all we have to do is apply what we learned more consistently…easier said than done. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bill.

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