“What do you get when you assume?” goes the
common riddle.

The answer comes when you divide the word
assume down the middle: You make a you-know-
what out of “U” and “Me.” (Hint: Synonym for

“The Donkey Syndrome,” as I like to call it, explains
why the biggest theme in my hospital chaplain
training was the admonition to avoid assumptions.

That’s because it’s very easy to make damaging
assumptions, but most especially in the hospital.

For instance, it was easy to assume that the lung
cancer patient who asked me why God gave him c
ancer had likely brought it upon himself. That is,
until I learned he was like the 10 percent of lung
cancer patients who have never smoked.

On another occasion, it was easy for our emergency
room staff to assume that the mother who brought
her son to us hadn’t been watching closely enough
to prevent his electrocution. That is, until we
discovered it happened inside the locked tennis
court of a gated subdivision.

Assumptions can be damaging, but most especially
when assessing relationships.

When my training supervisor advised us that we
could avoid many relationship assumptions by
simply asking people how they know each other, I
discarded the advice as awkward.

Instead, I just assumed the relationship between a
visitor and a dying woman by asking, “Does your
mother have any particular religion?”

“She’s Buddhist,” and, he added with some distain at
my assumption, “this is my wife.”

Assumptions hurt.

Recently a chaplain colleague visited a gravely

injured man and quizzed the nurse about the
whereabouts of his wife. The nurse replied, “Which


But that’s what happens when we make assumptions
about people based on our preconceived notions
about their color, their piercings, their accent or
their tattoos. I think we can shed our donkey tails
when we learn to squelch our assuming closed-
ended questions.

What are “closed-ended” questions?

They are questions that assume a single-worded
answer, like yes or no. The inquisitor reveals his
assumption that the issue is black and white.

One example of a closed-ended question is when
the television reporter asks a family devastated by a
hurricane, “Don’t you feel awful?”

When we discard our closed-ended questions and
pose open-ended questions, we invite people to
share their spiritual journey.

Open-ended questions usually begin with “how?”
and “what?”

Better still, avoid the 20-question game and use a
sentence that starts with “Tell me.” “Tell me what you
are thinking.” “Tell me what that feels like.” “Tell me
what you might do next.”

Like many world religions, some of Christianity’s
most profound teaching springs from the answer to
an open-ended question. For instance, when Jesus
was asked, “What must I do to be saved?” or when
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I

As a chaplain, I see one of the worst assumptions
we put onto people is our closed-ended
assumptions about faith.

The Apostle Paul challenged some people in the
early Christian church when they thrust their
assumptions on new converts, telling them that they
must carry the mark of circumcision to be people of

“Don’t you see?” he asked. “It’s not the cut of a knife
on your skin that creates a person of faith, it’s the
mark God puts on your heart.”

Paul was warning that the assumptions we put onto
people about faith can be like using a knife to
extract God’s grace from them.

Bottom line: Don’t assume you know what’s best for
people. Get close enough to ask them open-ended
questions and read the writings, not on their
appendages, but on their hearts.