The Role of Assumptions, Perceptions and Expectations in Conflict

Joseph Ravick, a mediator, trainer, and facilitator, talks about “not letting the APE’s get you”. He is referring to the powerful role that our assumptions, perceptions and expectations have in defining how we perceive a conflict and, if left unexamined, the detrimental impact they will continue to have on the conflict. A key part of the process of addressing a conflict with another person is to examine our own and the other person’s assumptions, perceptions and expectations and how they are impacting the working relationship.


  • Assumption is defined in the dictionary as “a thing that is assumed to be true” xv
  • It is normal to make assumptions in our daily lives. We need to, as we do not have the time to check out all the assumptions we make in a day – that the mail we see was indeed delivered by the mailperson, that a classroom has been booked when a class is scheduled, that our Doctor has the credentials s/he should have to treat us, etc.
  • When we make assumptions about other’s intentions, reasons for action, or their understanding of the situation we may be laying a flawed foundation for our understanding of the relationship.
  • Identifying and checking out our assumptions and giving the other person an opportunity to identify and check out their own assumptions is crucial to developing a common understanding of the problem.
  • How do you check out an assumption?  You ask direct questions.

    What did you want to achieve when you did that?
    What information were you given about what my role would be?
    What is your understanding of our task?


  • Perception is defined in the dictionary as “a way of regarding, understanding or interpreting something”. xvi
  • Perception is fundamentally individual to each person. While some people may share a largely common perception of an event, there will always be some subtle differences. Often, people will have divergent perceptions of what occurred based on their assumptions, expectations, experience and history.
  • Being open to understanding how others have perceived the conflict and to adjusting our own perception when new information is received is key to managing conflict with others.


    • Defined in the dictionary as “belief that something will happen or be the case”. xvii
    • Again, it is normal to have expectations – that the mail will get delivered, that our car will start and that our key will open our office door (expectations I had which were recently frustrated!).
    • In the workplace it is normal to have expectations about how colleagues will treat us, how work will get accomplished and the kind of supervision we will receive. Our expectations are based on our life experience in general and experience specific to our workplace and co-workers.
    • When our expectations are not met there is a sense of “all is not right in the world”. There is a sense of frustration and/or a feeling of being disrespected or disregarded.

Why did my co-worker not do what I expected of him or her?
Why is my new supervisor unhappy with the way I am doing this?  It is the way I have always done it.
Why did I not get assigned that morning class?  She knows that I need to end my day early for family reasons.

  • When our expectations are not met we need to examine a number of questions:

    Was the other person aware of the expectation?
    Did the other person share the expectation?
    Was it in the power of the other person to meet the expectation?
    Was it in the other person’s best interest to meet the expectation?