Filling in the Blanks

In the absence of information, we make assumptions.

Humans look for patterns. We love to fill in the blanks. And when we don’t know an answer, we fill in those blanks based on our own ideas, often in the absence of evidence. This works well when playing Mad Libs, less well on math tests, and really poorly when it comes to collaborative decision-making.

Last week I wrapped up a series of seven public meetings over a ten day period. When planning this engagement process, I asked my Master’s students to help me predict how many people were likely to attend each meeting. Their guesses ranged from 150 to 2,500 people. I really hoped their estimates were off, as the rooms we’d booked held up to 300 people and I’d planned a facilitated process for up to about 100. Well, they were off. By a lot. Meetings #1 and #3 had exactly nobody show up. Zero. Meeting #2 started with eight people and finished with seventeen. A far cry from the several hundred my students had predicted.

And that’s when things got interesting. Our team members (myself included) were remarkably quick to “fill in the blanks” to explain why people did not attend the sessions. “The weather is rainy.” “They probably had to work.” “I guess this issue doesn’t matter to them as much as we thought it did.” “Maybe they didn’t know about the meeting.” “They likely don’t think their input will change anything.” “I think they’re fine with the way things are.”

What do we know for sure? That no one showed up. That’s all.

One of my colleagues likened it to voter turnout. She said that she’d prefer if everyone voted, even if the majority spoiled their ballot. At least we’d know more about how they felt than if they didn’t show up.

I see the same pattern in some relationships. Gossip starts quickly when some mystery and curiosity are combined with a lack of clear information.

Next time you find yourself facing a vacuum – a blank on a page or an empty seat – notice your urge to fill it in with something. Then take it further, to notice how much evidence you have for the conclusions you’re now drawing. Can you go one step further, to fill that vacuum with more reliable evidence? If not, be careful. Your decisions will not be wise if they are based more on conjecture than fact.

3 Replies to “Filling in the Blanks”

  1. Really interesting article, Rebecca. I would also add that people tend to fill in the blanks reflecting the emotion they are feeling. That is, if they are upset or angry, they may attribute negative reasons/assumptions. Whereas if they are feeling positive or neutral, they’ll offer more ‘grace’ and benefit of the doubt – ascribing more generous reasons/assumptions. Do you find this as well?

    1. Yes! I also found some great content on this concept in Brene Brown’s newest book, “Dare to Lead” (see pages 258-267). Much more helpful to start a conversation with “The story I’m currently telling myself is…”

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