we can assume

I remember once, as a scared-to-really-break-the-rules child, maybe twelve years old sitting at the dinner table, and having made an assumption. I can’t recall what it was about, because to this day, that isn’t what lesson was made clear to me at the table.

What I do remember, though, is that once I had made the assumption, my mom asked me: “Donald, do you know what happens when we assume?”

You all know how this goes. I had not heard it before, so mom made me break the word down from the back to the front.



I couldn’t do it. I remember my eyes getting very big, and mom, with serious face, saying, “you need to say it.” “I can’t.” “You need to say it. What’s the other word?” “I can’t.” “Donald…”


Then a read face, then giggles, then I’m scared for breaking the rules again.


Several years later, in grad school, I was taught one of the golden sets of, yes, assumptions, that we as social workers are to carry like a carpenter carries a hammer. Known as Saleeby’s Strengths Perspective, those who are close to me have no doubt heard me repeat it as a mantra, probably (hopefully) most often for myself. One in particular comes to mind most often: 

Assume that you do not know the upper limits of one’s capacity to grow and change, and take individual, group, and community aspiration seriously.

Almost daily with clients, with today as no exception, as they come into my office and sit down on the couch, my own arrogance and ignorance trumps my skill and I find myself assuming that I know someone’s upper capacity to grow and change.

A drunk.
A lazy parent.
A greedy slumlord.
A bad kid.
A messed up family.


There is an incredible gift I’ve been offered by those who love me well, and love me most, and that is the gift of assuming they do not know my upper capacity to grow and change. And because of this, they take my aspirations seriously. And because of this, I am often able to meet my own aspirations.

And so, in my work as in my life, the challenge is to assume I do not know the upper limits of others’ capacities to grow and change, and to therefore lean into their aspirations with great expectation. This results in treating people with dignity and respect, and assuming that I don’t know all there is to know about another. Not after the first, fiftieth, or five-hundredth time meeting them.

So, we can assume that we do not know the upper limits of one’s capacity to grow and change, and we therefore take individual, group, and community aspiration seriously.

And thanks for making me say it, mom.

Pine Tree

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2 thoughts on “we can assume

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