Jumping to conclusions: acting on interpretations vs. facts

Have you experienced a situation where  you hear someone and you either miss the end of the sentence or interrupt it, so you  fill the gaps with your own words and meanings? Do you find yourself assuming things about what people say, though really, no definite fact convincingly supports your conclusion?

Does  this result in your feeling that you heard something negative, or that the person’s actions were weird, because their words and behavior did not match?

Did some of your own actions result in very unexpected outcomes, because you acted on what you assumed you had heard or knew about a situation, only to realize later that you completely mis-interpreted what was  said and therefore took an action path that now needs to be corrected?

This  guessing of the facts about a situation without having enough information is called jumping to conclusions.We’re naturally wired to speedily  seek  mental information to make sense of any unusual situation. It is the way nature prepared us for surviving in dangerous situations.

Second guessing works wonders in business situations, when a lot of information and variables need to be processed, and when we have to make critical decisions under intense time pressure, especially if we are decision makers. Using tacit knowledge, we  then construct a mental story that makes sense and presents a very valid description of reality and facts and ideally  is flexible enough to shape options . Openmindedness brings the concept of jumping to conclusions to that of the art of risk calculation and management, through progressive discovery of more information.

However, this is not the case in private situations.  Jumping to conclude what a friend or a partner says can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. If by the mere fact of intimacy, we  fill the rest of half formulated sentences with our own meanings, because after all we know that person so well…. then we can get it really, really wrong!

This happens, when for one reason or another,  we  are not be in a good space as we hear what the other says. Tiredness and stress will more often than not result in our interpreting the sentence negatively, as we fill the second half of their yet unformulated thoughts with our own tired and stressed endings!  Basically, it is our belief as opposed to their intent, that prevails.  This is how two and two becomes a dangerous, negative five, because, as the meaning is in the result and no longer in the intent, we may act in a way that may harm others, by deciding on a course of  action they did not expect.

An example is a partner who asks the other where to go for dinner and the reply is “yes, but this time I don’t want to…..” The listener interprets it as “but this time I don’t want to go to that same place “ which he adores, where the intent of the sender of the message was “…but this time I don’t want to stay too late, because I’ve got important work to do tomorrow”. The result: he is annoyed that she dismisses his invitation and his tastes, and sulks, and she is mystified as to why he suddenly should be so cross. As she finishes the end of her sentence, which could rectify the situation, he no longer listens and misses the point, as he walks out the door in frustration.  Here you have two miserable persons who only a moment ago were relishing the opportunity of an evening of dining together.

Personal actions based on  information that is grossly inadequate for having been guessed and not checked nor verified with the principal people involved,  are irrational. Irrational behavior is damaging to others.

To act rationally,  develop first an awareness as to whether you’ve second guessed or not. If  you realise that information is lacking or has been assumed, then check your basis for acting with someone else first, preferably with the person who is directly involved.

A good question to ask yourself is “do I have a full picture here? did I get it right?” A prompt, is to check how the person reacts to your conclusion. If they are frazzled, it most certainly shows that no, you did not get it right.  Then, get to corrective action immediately.

If you are an habitual second guesser but don’t quite grasp this yet, take the hint when people around you tell you that you  ‘always’  jump to conclusions or that you finish their sentences for them instead of letting them round and close their meaning.  Make it an exercise in restraint, by either allowing them a bit more time as they pause, and allow them to finish their sentence, or by rephrasing and then checking the sentence for meaning, such as “I hear you say….., did I get it right?”

Then decide on the meaning of their thought, and act accordingly.

Author: Pascale Aline

Psychotherapist & Performance Coach, I specialize working with tools for self enhancement, growth, productivity and healing (Biofeedback, EMDR, Mindfulness training)

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