Assumptions-What You Said Is Not What I Heard; What You Did Was Not What I Saw

Lisa May Live the Life South Florida Executive Director

We process most communication based on what we know about the person communicating. We make positive or negative assumptions based on our personal experience with them or on the credibility of their reputation or the person or organization who made the introduction. If our experience has been negative, we will filter the person’s message through a negative lens. We’ll assume the worst. If our experience has been positive, we will assume the best even when the words don’t match.

I have a friend who regularly says things that, although well-intended, come across as judgmental. Many times I’ve said, “They didn’t mean it that way.” One person hears it as unfavorable, and I interpret it differently. Why? Because I know them and I know their heart, so I can easily assume the best.

Jerry Ballard says, “All miscommunications are the result of differing assumptions.” Read the story below. You’ll laugh at the assumptions.


Varying assumptions illustrated

The leader of a wagon train of pioneers was heading across the Western plain. A lookout spotted a cloud of dust in the distance moving toward them; he knew they were in trouble. Sure enough, a tribe of Native American braves thundered toward them, and the leader ordered the wagons to form a circle behind the hill.

When the leader of the settlers saw the tall figure of a chief silhouetted against the sky, he decided to face the chief and attempt to communicate with him using sign language. Afterward, the chief backed away and returned to his men. What happened? The pioneers asked the leader.

“Well, as you probably saw, we couldn’t speak each other’s language,” he said, “so we used sign language.” I drew a circle in the dust with my finger to show that we’re all one in this land. He looked at the circle and drew a line through it. He meant, of course, that there are two nations- ours and his. But I pointed my finger to the sky to indicate that we are all one under God. Then he reached into a pouch and took out an onion, which he gave to me. Naturally, I understood that it indicated the multiple layers of understanding available to everyone. To show him that I understood his meaning, I ate the onion. Then I reached into my coat and offered him an egg to show our goodwill, but as he was to proud too accept my gift, he just turned and walked away.”

Meanwhile, the warriors were readying for an attack and awaited the order from their chief, but the old warrior held up his hand and recounted his experience.

“When we came face-to-face,” he said, “we immediately knew that we did not speak the same tongue. That man then drew a circle in the dust. I knew he meant that we were surrounded. I drew a line through his circle to show him that we would cut them in half. Then he raised his finger to the sky, meaning he could take us on all by himself. Then I gave him an onion to tell him that he would soon taste the bitter tears of defeat and death. But he ate the onion in defiance! Then he showed me an egg to tell me how fragile our position is. There must be others close by. Let’s get out of here.”


“The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” – Jesse Giglio


Elements of communication

Circle the Wagons, By Everett Collection

We convey messages by the expressions on our face, the tone of our voice and the actual words that we speak. Albert Mehrabian, teacher, and author on communication, tells us that when we communicate feelings or attitudes that seven percent of communication is based on words,  38 percent is based on tone, and 55 percent is by facial expression. The story of the Indian chief and the leader of the wagon train didn’t use words, and there was no verbal tone. What they did use was the facial expression and the reputation of each other. Although they didn’t know one another, they assumed meanings based on body language and reputation.

What will people assume about us? Will our words, tone, body language and reputation with our spouse, children, family, friends and co-workers be filtered through negative assumptions, or do we live a life that sets the stage for positive assumptions when communicating?


“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11 NKJV).


“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favor rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1 NKJV).


Lisa May is Executive Director of Live the Life South Florida. She can be reached at [email protected], by mail at 5110 N. Federal Hwy. Suite 102, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33308, or visit

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