Why the Obvious isn’t Obvious

by Peter Hiddema

You know the old notion, “That’s obvious, dummy!  You’re wasting your breath.”

I’m not persuaded it’s as simple as that.  In one of the consulting engagements I’m doing right now, this theme rings loud and clear in two ways. 

First, I often find myself thinking that some of the advice I’m going to give my client is obvious to them, and therefore not necessarily that valuable.  But I give the advice anyway, because I’d rather they hear an idea from me that they’ve already thought of than miss an idea altogether because I assumed they already knew.

Time and again, I am surprised to discover that they had not thought of it.  It was obvious to me, but not to them.  And then I remember: oh yeah, I’ve got more than 13 years’ experience in this field full-time, and I’ve been using these concepts in my work and my life for over 17 years.  Ideas, habits, and practices that have become second nature to me are unlikely to be second nature to them. 

The second way this theme shows up is within the client team I’m advising.  They will regularly not bother saying something to someone or asking someone about something, because they assume it’s obvious.  They don’t want to waste time, embarrass themselves, or embarrass the other person, so they say nothing.  What happens?  More bumps along the way, or more unhappy surprises. 

The common denominator in both these situations is ASSUMPTIONS. 

Yes – that old troublemaker – assumptions.

Making assumptions isn’t necessarily a problem in itself.  In fact, we need to make assumptions about all kinds of things to be able to operate in a normal and healthy way in society.  I assume that when I turn the key in my door, it will lock and unlock.  I assume that if I set my alarm clock it will go off at the designated time, I assume that my staff will be working on business days unless I’m told otherwise, I assume that the subway trains are running unless I hear otherwise, I assume my car will start when I turn the key.  I assume the grocery store will have food on the shelves.  These sound ridiculous, but they are in fact assumptions.  Imagine if you had to check each one of those assumptions each day before taking action based on that assumption?  You’d barely get through a day.  You’d have no time to accomplish anything material.   Take it another step: I assume I can trust my wife, my family, my close friends, my team, my close colleagues.  Imagine how disabling it would be to always be second guessing this? 

Lots of assumptions are normal, healthy, and in fact helpful. 

But when it comes to dealing with other people in situations that are changing all the time, it’s a different story – especially when we don’t know the people well.  Here, not testing your assumptions typically spells trouble:

  • How can I be so confident that I know what another person really wants or thinks?
  • Why is it a good idea to conclude that they’ll see it the way I see it?

How can I be so sure that what is obvious to me is also obvious to them?

  • Worse, why would I be so arrogant as to assume that if they don’t see something my way, or is something isn’t obvious to them that is obvious to me, they are just plain stupid or misguided?  Maybe they see a different picture.  Maybe they value different things.  Maybe…the list is endless.

Maybe a better way to think is this:

It’s obvious that what’s obvious to me isn’t necessarily obvious to you.

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