There is an interesting dichotomy in business that makes you both successful and keeps you from being successful and that is the act of making assumptions.

How can assumptions be useful?

We all modify our world in order for it to make sense by doing three basic things, we generalize, we delete and we distort things so we can comprehend, explain and survive. From that comes the phrase made famous by the late Stephen R. Covey, “The map is not the territory.” This phrase was not a Covey original. It was originally coined in the 1930s by Polish-American scientist and philosopher, Alfred Korzybski.

For example, in a positive sense, we learn how a key goes in a lock one time and then we know how to do that simple task evermore. Those generalizations work for us in all types of ways: In our sales process, the way we meet people, the way we navigate socially at chamber meetings or other business functions.

Another useful way to use assumptions is to, as my friend and author Shelle Rose Charvet says, “guess and test.” That is the appropriate way (strategy) to employ the assumption or the generalization. The test component is critical. If you assume something make sure in some way besides the guess that you are correct. Otherwise, the strategy changes from a positive to a negative.

How can assumptions go bad?

Korzybski came up with the catchy phrase noted above when he noticed that some people confuse their reality with reality itself.  That is the dangerous strategy of using assumptions or generalizations in business (in life for that matter) when we assume something and then react to it as if it where real without testing it. I have seen many talented people use this most ineffective strategy to their demise. You hear it when someone says, “He is not interested in buying…” or perhaps you have heard someone say, “If they want it, they will ask me for it without me having to sell it…”

In other words, we make assumptions work against ourselves when we decisions before we know what the truth, or reality, really is. What we are really doing is making decisions for others – often inappropriately or incorrectly.

Using assumptions and generalizations can be powerful tools, if used properly. To do so, you must remember two things. First, making assumptions (without testing them) is making an ass out of u (you) and me. Second, jumping to conclusions and reacting as if your belief is reality has caused wars, deaths, bigotry and discrimination. Those two reasons are why it can be a very, very, very dangerous thing.

Be aware of this and be wise in your use of assumptions to find success.