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Assumptions - a communication and conflict training exercise

An exercise exploring our assumptions about others, that I have used on training courses for Mediators is called ‘Does he take sugar?’.

One of the benefits of the exercise is that it promotes self awareness with regard to how we see others, and how this can affect our impartiality.

The exercise involves the following:

Participants pair up and are asked to give an answer to a question about each other.

For example, they will be asked "does your partner take sugar in their tea/ coffee?" They will both then give an answer without discussing whether the answer is correct or not.

They then split up and find another partner and this time they may be asked a question such as "Which newspaper does this person read?".

This is repeated for a few more questions such as "What kind of music does this person like?", "What sport does this person play?", "What is their favourite film?", "Which political party do they support?" etc.

At no time are the answers discussed when they are in pairs.

We then discuss as a group what came up for people in the exercise. Mostly people find it funny and a bit awkward making such snap decisions about people and then saying them out loud. Occasionally people feel quite upset by the answers given about them, but usually their experience is one of amused interest.

This is quite significant because actually most of us are constantly answering similar questions in our own heads all the time when we meet people and are coming up with our own answers without checking with the people we meet whether our assumptions are correct or not.

The following book is recommended reading if you are looking for a wide range of experiential training exercises to explore communication and conflict related topics:

Offended by Assumptions?

And as with the exercise it is fairly unpredictable which assumptions, if known, would upset the person we are making them about, and which ones would not. It is a very personal reaction.

(To anyone who considers that it is entirely predictable which assumptions will upset people, I would ask you to consider whether you are speaking for yourself or claiming to speak for others.)

‘Political Correctness’

It is not possible to establish what stereotyping statements will upset people, as something that upsets one person will not necessarily upset another. This is why the ‘Political Correctness’ movement was seen by many to be very patronising and self-righteous as you can’t make generalisations about what is offensive and what is not – it can be a very personal thing.

It is also why many people were upset when (often white) people criticised the use of nursery rhymes such as ‘Baa Baa Black sheep’ as being offensive to black people. (Incidentally, I was walking through my local supermarket the other day and 3 little black girls were happily walking down the aisles singing this, while the smiling mother of one of them walked along behind. How beautiful a sight to see, and how ironic, given the furore that was once made about this song.)

Also, more recently the banning of Christmas messages in some organisations’ cards….. at Christmas!... because they 'would be offensive to non-Christians'. And yet many Muslim organisations came out to say this was not at all offensive to them.

The Rescuing practice here is of assuming we know what will or will not offend particular groups, by speaking for them, without checking with them if it is actually the case that an action or phrase is offensive to them.

Instead of increasing mutual understanding it often leads to resentment of those being 'protected' (Rescued) as it feels like previous liberties are being taken away without any understanding of why.

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We ALL make assumptions...all the time, but are we open to questioning them? 

We are all constantly making assumptions about people and often we will not consider which ones are accurate and which are not.

What this inevitably means is that sometimes we will make them about people, and if they become known to them, through our words or our actions, there is a chance they will be upset.

It is at this point that we can choose to ‘justify’ and defend our assumption, or belittle their reaction – actions which are more likely to happen if we are confronted aggressively for making it.

Or we can accept that our preconception is not accurate and learn to revise it - which is more likely to happen if we and the person ‘assumed about’ are willing to understand that we all do this, pretty much all the time when we meet people, whether for the first time, or for the hundredth time or more and we sometimes make mistakes and get it wrong.

It is then an opportunity for learning and greater closeness and connection between the people involved.

Sometimes however, it leads to a great distancing and separation - particularly with regard to assumptions based on race and gender, and more particularly those about Black and Asian people and about women. I am puzzled by the basis for these areas being more aggressively challenged than many other assumptions.

If there is an argument that historically there has been a greater impact from these, then I would want to point out that to respond aggressively is the least effective way of challenging it.

Instead of it leading to learning and connection, it leads to denial and defensiveness and ‘hidden’ expressions of the assumptions so that the negative impact continues. A more open challenging of any assumption (rather than a labelling of the person as 'racist', 'sexist', 'ageist' etc. ) on the understanding that we all continuously, even unconsciously, do it, is more likely to be effective in challenging the stereotype.

I mean, the condemnation approach hasn't been that effective so far has it? That is because it is another means of conflict suppression, which, in turn, is conflict avoidance. That old boiling pot with the lid on.

I relate these aspects of our behaviour to impartiality as it is only when we recognise these inclinations towards bias and are willing to acknowledge them in ourselves, that we are able to maintain impartiality when we are communicating with people or supporting them in resolving their destructive conflict.

And even, more challengingly, it allows us to be aware of our biases when we are in a destructive conflict, which allows us to take a greater level of ownership of our own actions, thoughts and feelings in connection with it.

Impartiality plays a crucial role in all of the skills used to practice effective communication - to see how, go to: Listening, Summarising and Questioning - and also underpins all effective conflict resolution.

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What Other Visitors Have Said

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Nora Hanasy 
Hi I am an artist and currently looking into assumptions and how there are many different versions of me out there that may be very different to how I …

The Three "Gays" 
Once I worked with a lesbian couple and one day, one of them said, of something in the workplace she thought was stupid, "Well that's gay!" I did a double-take, …

Italians are Assumed to be Lazy , Criminal and oversexed 
Moving to the ultra conservative southeast US was a very upsetting experience. All kinds of horrible assumptions were made about me to the point of putting …

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A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution

A Guide to Effective Communication for Conflict Resolution introduces the 9 Principles that are also described on this site to help the reader develop a 'mindfulness' in relation to their communication in a way that supports the resolution of conflict. In this book

Alan shares his observations and learnings from working as a Mediator and Conflict Coach with regard to the ways that people become stuck in unresolved conflict but also how they go on to create more effective ways forward in their difficult situations. 

"I think you put together so well all the essential components of
conflict transformation in a way which people can relate to and
understand. A brilliant book and I will recommend it to everyone." Jo Berry  www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org

Some more comments about this site.....

Hi Alan

It is refreshing to find reading material that informs and inspires and can provide a good resource for small organisations such as ours.

Anne Johnston - The Shropshire Housing Alliance Mediation Service

I did a 1 hour workshop where I presented your Facts and Feelings Listening Exercise. We learned so much about how we listen and the consequences of not listening well that I was asked to purchase your book and have another Listening Meeting.

My team just launched a project that could have whipped the team members and executives into a tremendous conflict. I required everyone to follow your rules for listening and it has been the best implementation we have had in 10years.

Thank you for your generous and comprehensive communications and conflict resolution information.

Angela - Information Technology & Systems VP

'What is a Bully?' Comment on article by Alan which was published on the Mediate.com website

Thank you SO MUCH for this article! It brings forward some very key points about the phenomenon of "bullying" which I have been pondering for some while. Among others, asking to what extent can/should the person on the receiving end of the bullying/perceived to be bullying take responsibility/initiate steps to shift the paradigm? How can this happen without implying that the recipient is somehow responsible for the bullying behavior?

To a certain extent the steps you suggest point to the strategies of NonViolent Communication: Observe and simply describe the behavior, understand and honor your own feelings and needs in the situation, and take responsibility for meeting them by making requests to change the situation.

There has been a significant upsurge of email traffic about bullying in the last year among the members of the Int'l. Ombudsman's Association (principally the academic sector). Much of the exchange, in my view, has tended to favor the stance of "recipient of the behavior as victim," without agency to change the situation, thereby perpetuating the problem and doing a disservice to all. I will be forwarding this article to my colleagues to spice up the conversation!

Laurie McCann, Campus Ombuds, Univ Calif Santa Cruz