Assumptions can be a very dangerous thing. They can be exceptionally harmful in an open source community. Of course its not always intentional to be assuming something about someone or a situation. In fact I imagine, to some extent, human nature causes us to make assumptions based on the knowledge we have on hand. Unfortunately, more often than not, those assumptions are false. And the resulting feelings, emotions, and actions which are taken as a result of those assumptions can harm the community.

So what are some common ways in which assumptions can harm a community? There are many but we’ll look quickly at three examples.

An Assumption Can Harm A Reputation

First, an assumption can harm a reputation. You may not mean to harm someone’s reputation by making an assumption about them or their character, but what happens when you make an assumption based on false information or a mis-understanding can oftentimes result in someone’s reputation being damaged. There’s nothing worse than having to defend yourself against an accusation which is untrue or unfounded. And when that accusation is based on an assumption rather than truth or a fact, it makes defending yourself that much harder. In a community setting it may be easier to walk away then bother to defend yourself against a false accusation. Too many good community members are lost this way.

An Assumption Stirs up Strife

Secondly an assumption harms a community because it sows discord. When community members are assuming things about other community members they begin to distrust others. As the community, in essence, turns on itself, the community begins to fall apart. The trust, the common bond which has brought all these various individuals together begins to dissolve. And it dissolves because each person begins to distrust the other people. They begin to question motives and intents. They begin to distrust because of an assumption rather than a fact. If a community lacks trust in one another then there is no solid foundation on which to build a healthy community and a healthy team. Great communities rely on mutual respect and trust.

An Assumption Makes A Community Look Bad

Thirdly, a community can be hurt by assumptions because of the image it portrays to others outside the community. When others outside the community are witnessing the assumptions shared within a community they spread like wildfire. Before you know it others outside the community are also making assumptions and very quickly the entire situation escalates out of control. If someone outside the community hears a rumor or a story, especially if they know nothing about the community, they will usually assume the worst and then they will share that with someone else and person by person the story will spread. And the community suffers.

What are the best ways to avoid assumptions in a community?

There are ways to avoid assumptions in a community. These are a great place to start when you find yourself caught in a situation where you believe you may be involved in a rumor or an assumption which seems difficult to believe. If you find yourself questioning the validity of a story, follow these steps.

Be Open.

Open communication is first and foremost the fastest way to ensure assumptions are stopped. If you have questions or concerns about the motives or intents behind someone’s actions – ask them. As a community we should have that level of personal involvement with each other; that level of comfort which allows us to go to one another, share our thoughts, and ask for clarification. We’re working together. We’re fighting for a common cause. We’re seeking to accomplish a singular goal with a shared focus. If there are questions, comments, or concerns about that focus the fastest way to clear up confusion is direction and open communication.

Be Direct.

If you hear a rumor its often better to go directly to the source and verify the information. This will keep you from continuing an assumption. This also helps to ensure the assumption stops quickly when they do form. Because its impossible to stop all assumptions, but at least we can minimize the damage. The idea here is not a public name-and-shame tactic which some people use. The idea of being direct involves a one-on-one personal conversation, much as you would have with a close friend. Because…we should be close friends. We are a community. We should have a real and personal relationship with one another. We are not enemies.

Be Brave.

Too many people are scared of offending someone or intimidated by the possibility of conflict which may arise when speaking directly to an individual about a situation. But that fear will quickly turn into something larger, something far more damaging to the community. We must choose to work together. We must refuse to be afraid. We must choose to be brave. Assumptions have no place within a strong community and the faster we destroy assumptions when they begin to form the stronger our community will be.