Fresh thinking: Challenging our assumptions – yes, we all have them

Here’s your challenge for the week. Try to go about your business – let’s start small – for just one day without making one assumption about someone or something. It could be that neighbour kid with the blue mohawk walking down your street, your perpetually late co-worker, the meeting you’re about to walk into.

Your potential assumptions: He’d probably break into my car; she’s been out partying again; everyone in that meeting already has their mind made up.

Sound familiar?

None of us are immune from making assumptions, generalizations, biases or having blind spots – call them what you like – in just about everything we do. We come by them honestly, collecting them like burrs on a hiking trail. They can be rooted in where we grew up, how we were raised and our life experiences. We all have them and they motivate us to make the wrong or negative decisions or simply lead us down the wrong path.

How do I even begin?

A year ago, I had the chance to visit a safe drug consumption site to see how the facility operated. It was way out of my comfort zone because I don’t know that world. Drawing on my facilitator mindset, my goal was to be non-judgmental, listen and only ask questions. Over the course of the visit, I heard things like: “I come to this place because they treat me like a person,” and “I can speak my truth here.” I left looking at the clients as human beings and my assumptions about how and why these folks were here got completely blown up. That was a powerful moment for me.

Yes, it’s not easy to get to a place where we challenge our own assumptions. I bet you’re thinking, how do I even begin?

The first step is acknowledging we have assumptions. We all come into a conversation with them. They are a product of experiences, the information we consume, education, the social context we exist in and our culture. Our assumptions enable us in our day-to-day experiences. And it’s also how we shortcut our thinking. Step 1 is asking yourself: Where might I be holding assumptions?

fresh thinking - #3 reflect -andre mouton

The Unconscious Bias course I recently took helped me take an inventory of my own biases. We were asked to look at ourselves and then consider our underlying assumptions. When I’m working with clients, we often have a conversation about assumptions. We explore questions like:

  • What do we know to be true?
  • What assumptions are we holding?
  • What can be challenged and changed?
  • What cannot be challenged or changed?

These questions are helpful for any workplace looking at making decisions or reassessing a process they may have been wedded to for a long time and now want to change.

How do we make our assumptions, anyway?

Behavioural psychologist Chris Argyris came up with something called the Ladder of Inference, which identified how we “ladder up” from observable data to assumptions to action and the risks of not challenging assumptions. In other words, how 2 + 2 = 5.

Typically, this is how we make our assumptions and what we do with them, in a series of steps.

  • I observe many pieces of data and select specific pieces of data.
  • I interpret the ‘facts’ and add meaning – now I have an assumption.
  • I draw conclusions; I tell a story around that conclusion.
  • Then I take actions based on my belief.

That’s the kind of laddering up we do every day. But to diffuse that, we need to be aware that we’ve formed an assumption, but then challenge ourselves and ask: what data supports or contradicts my story?

I was recently teaching a facilitation skills class and a student left the room, and then came back quite late. From that point on, the student seemed quite distracted and disconnected. I found myself becoming focused on her seemingly distressed state and was sure that something bad had happened. This made me approach her and ask if everything was alright.

I interpreted her late arrival as an indication that a problem had happened and then assumed that she was in a state of distress, which contributed to her distraction.  Fortunately, my behaviour to ask if she was OK also tested my assumptions and I discovered that nothing of the sort had happened – she had simply lost track of time.

laddering up

Source:  Panorama Education

Put on your active listening ears

The downside of making assumptions is that it can create conflict with people who have another set of assumptions. Positions get entrenched and prevent us from genuinely listening to another perspective. That stops us from finding shared solutions and being creative. It also puts up a ton of barriers between ourselves, and our colleagues, which stops us from talking to people in a meaningful way.

By the way, I am guilty as charged on every count.

fresh thinking #4 active listening

One technique that I use to challenge assumptions is a listening process that allows someone to present a perspective for three to five minutes without interrupting. Then I ask everyone:

  • What did you hear that was new?
  • What did you hear that surprised you?
  • What did you hear that might have challenged something you already believed?

Then we start unpacking this by asking:

  • What would make something you are hearing true or not true, as a way to get someone to look at both sides of a subject.
  • What else do you know about this subject?

Then we’d repeat the process with another perspective on the same issue. In this manner, we start to surface and challenge the many assumptions that exist within a topic.

Getting to a productive dialogue

I’ll give you an example of a positive outcome after using a contradictions workshop. There was tension between a head office and a regional office over the adoption of a process. Each felt the other was dumb. We talked about the things that were stopping them from adopting the process. What emerged was that the parent company had bought the sub-company when they were financially stressed, concluding the company was not that smart and therefore they needed to be micromanaged. The reaction from the sub-company was acute frustration while the head office maintained they needed to get with the bigger picture.

fresh thinking - frustration

This is what happens when groups get siloed, giving them an excuse to keep doing things the same way. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But when we were able to identify the problem, they admitted that yes, they were each holding assumptions of ‘competence’ or lack there-of. It was a starting point for moving to a more productive dialogue.

Yes, there can be a downside to challenging assumptions. I know someone who has the ability to challenge every idea but then can’t make a decision. The assumption-challenging skill is on hyperdrive and paradoxically generates a whole new set of assumptions. You can hold yourself in an endless cycle of inertia. At some point, you have to say I’ve done enough. If you’re forever cycling through challenging assumptions, it’s useful but only until you stop making advances and taking the next steps. Be open and aware, but don’t get stuck.

Five ways to kickstart your action plan

  1. Awareness. Become aware that we hold assumptions, therefore they exist.
  2. Examine what assumption you might be holding.
  3. Get information about your assumption. Then explore and seek diverse input.
  4. Decide what your new position or assumption will be and how it will evolve to meet your purpose.
  5. Test your new assumption. You can do that by asking, “Am I off on this?” “Do you see it differently” “Am I missing something?” Be open to the idea that you might be wrong or need further input. Don’ be absolute. Form your position but be open to the idea that it might evolve. It creates the possibility of being wrong, which helps you be more right.

What I’m reading

Interested in more on this topic? Here are three books that helped me tackle the assumption trap.

Talking with Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept of why we misread each other so often and how the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people fail us. He uses fascinating examples to illustrate. He talks about our “default to truth” (we believe someone tells the truth until we just can’t), our belief in transparency (that we can know what someone is thinking by their behaviours) and coupling (the proximity of circumstance that leads to outcomes).

Insight, Tasha Eurich

Tasha Eurich explores self-awareness and suggests that we are not nearly as self-aware as we think we are. She goes on to offer suggestions and practices that help us see ourselves more clearly in order to help us be more successful at work and in life. I liked the set of exercises in the book and the robust examples from her own coaching experiences.

The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz

Roger is one of the leading academics in the realm of facilitation and his approach to facilitation is fully informed by the ladder of inference. I have also spent five days training with Roger and pull his principles into my practice. I’d recommend Roger’s materials and course in a heartbeat.