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Assumption is the mother of all…

Dec 21, 2022 | Insights

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Ask questions and listen to the answers with the ear of your heart to avoid damaging human feelings and emotions with flawed assumptions.
An elderly lady stands on the pavement. A keen young man bounces up and offers to help her across the road. But, before she can reply, the young man takes her by the arm and guides her through the traffic to the other side of the street, at which point the elderly lady berates him because she has just missed the bus for which she was waiting.

The story is probably apocryphal. However, it is a familiar warning against making assumptions. If you seek meaning in your life by helping others, ensure you are not basing your actions on incorrect assumptions.

The military, as I recall, drilled a maxim into us along the lines of “assumption is the mother of all big blunders” – except phrased a bit more pithily than that because poor assumptions can and do lead to lives lost.

The assumptions of the deaf man

Rumi was a Sufi scholar and poet active in the 13th Century AD. He was also an extraordinary raconteur, and one of his stories concerns a deaf man and his sick neighbour.

A deaf man finds out his neighbour is ill and decides to visit him. Knowing he will not be able to hear his neighbour, he preps his responses to the answers he expects to his sympathetic questions.

For instance, assuming the response to his question about his neighbour’s health will be “I’m fine” (a common and usually untrue response, even today), the deaf man decides he will respond with “That’s wonderful; I am so glad to hear it”.

The deaf man prepares his responses to other aspects of the anticipated conversation, which, when it happens later that day, comes out as:

Deaf man: “Hello, my neighbour. How are you feeling today?”
Sick neighbour: “I’m dying.”
Deaf Man (using his rehearsed response): “Thank God. That’s wonderful; I am so glad to hear it. Now, are you eating well? What did you eat for breakfast?”
Sick neighbour (now a little irritated): “Poison!”
Deaf man: “It sounds delicious. I hope you had plenty. By the way, which of our local doctors is treating you?”
Sick neighbour (now thoroughly irritated): “Azrael, the Angel of Death.”
Deaf man: “Blessings. He is good news. He has a reputation in the town for curing everyone’s aches and pains.”

Flawed assumptions are damaging and can even be fatal.

Rumi tells us that the deaf man leaves under the impression he has done his neighbourly duty and brought joy and comfort to the sick man, which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

The lesson is straightforward: don’t make assumptions. Unfortunately, we do it all the time, and Christmas is no exception. How often do we make incorrect assumptions about friends and family members when we buy presents for them? Assuming they like what we like can lead to disappointment, even if the beneficiary of our boundless enthusiasm and misplaced generosity is too polite to mention it.

The alternative to making assumptions

Flawed assumptions can do massive damage to human feelings and emotions. Avoid the pain with the alternative strategy: ask questions and listen to the answers with the ear of your heart.


Photo by Anuja Mary Tilj on Unsplash


Rumi. The Book of Rumi (p. 22). Hampton Roads Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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