Don’t Make Assumptions: The Third Agreement

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fifth Agreement" by Don Miguel Ruiz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does the third agreement “don’t make assumptions” actually mean? What difference could it make if you made this agreement with yourself?

Don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz, in their book The Fifth Agreement, discuss five “agreements” that you can make with yourself. These agreements affect your perspective of the world and how you fit into it. The third agreement is this: Don’t make assumptions.

Read more to learn a healthy alternative to making assumptions.

Don’t Make Assumptions

The third step in the Toltec path is to accept that you can’t guess what someone else is thinking or what’s going on in their life. This is essentially the second step in reverse. The naguals explain that your assumptions about another person’s reasoning or behavior aren’t based on what’s really going on with them, but on your (probably false) perception of them. Therefore, when you expect others to behave a certain way, you set yourself up for disappointment. The naguals’ suggestion? To avoid disappointment and be happy socially, don’t make assumptions.

(Shortform note: In his book Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that while we think we’re good at reading people, we’re actually terrible at it. We assume people are telling the truth and that the way they present themselves outwardly is an accurate and reliable representation of their inner feelings and intentions. But don’t we all occasionally hide our true feelings, tell half-truths, or mask our intent—and haven’t we gotten away with it? Why should others be any different?)

Guesswork Leads to Conflict and Stress

When we conflict with others, the naguals say, it’s often because we make assumptions and create unrealistic expectations. Parents and their children, for example, often argue because they live in different worlds—kids see a reality that doesn’t exist to their parents, and vice-versa. Both parties are stuck in their own subjective realities, and conflict results when they make assumptions about each other’s circumstances.

Further, we often stress ourselves out by creating imaginary scenarios. If your husband is late coming home from work, you may try to explain why. Maybe he’s been hurt, or he’s cheating on you. Whatever story you come up with, it only exists in your mind—but the fear, the anger, and the stress you feel are real. When he arrives and you realize nothing was wrong, your concerns feel silly—perhaps even shameful. It’s the assumptions that cause you pain, the authors say, so don’t make assumptions.

Communicate Openly

Instead of making assumptions, the authors say, communicate openly with others. If you want to know why someone’s doing what they’re doing or you want someone to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, just talk to them. When you want something, communicate it clearly. According to the authors, open communication is the key to social happiness, since it’s the only way we can learn others’ realities and express our own. That’s important, the naguals say because sharing our joys and experiences with others elevates their meaning and impact. 

How to Communicate Openly

In their book Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller explain that when you communicate openly, you set a good example, encouraging openness and honesty in your relationships. Like the naguals, they emphasize transparency and reciprocity: Openly give others what you want them to give you. When you communicate your needs and expectations directly and in a nonthreatening manner, you make it easy for others to understand what you want without forcing them into conflict.

As you communicate your needs, desires, and thoughts with others:

Be brave and assertive. Don’t apologize for feeling what you feel; summon your courage and speak openly. You’re initiating the conversation because you feel your concerns are legitimate, even if the other person doesn’t seem to agree.

Focus your words on what you need or want. Use phrases like “I need,” “I feel,” and “I want.” For example: “I know your work is important, but I’ve been feeling lonely. I need more time and affection than you’ve been giving me lately, and when you put your work first I worry you don’t want me around as much as I want you.”

Use specific examples to illustrate your concerns. Be concrete; don’t force the other party to make assumptions—your goal is to avoid further misunderstandings.

Avoid blaming, judging, or accusing. The goal isn’t to make the other person feel inadequate—it’s to open a dialogue that improves the way you treat each other.

Time your discussion for when both parties are calm and collected. If the situation is already volatile, let it simmer down so you can have an honest, forthright discussion.

When you follow the third agreement and don’t make assumptions, you communicate and experience reality, which leads to greater joy and satisfaction.

Don’t Make Assumptions: The Third Agreement

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Fifth Agreement summary :

  • The five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust your outlook
  • How to rediscover your true self and recapture the freedom you felt as a child
  • A five-step process to escape the mirage of “the real world”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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