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.

Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

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Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.

When asking the tough questions, use WHAT not WHY

I read a lot – or I guess, I should say, listen a lot. That’s right, like many others out there, I consume a lot of books through Audible and also have a steady stream of weekly can’t-miss podcasts bookmarked on my phone.

These recordings help me keep my hours behind the wheel both entertaining and productive, while giving me plenty to think about in both my home and work lives.

Recently, I was listening to a new Tasha Eurich book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.

The beauty of clarity

If you’ve ever heard me speak, or worked with me through a facilitated session, you know I’m a big fan of clarity and the self awareness it can bring.

Though this book is more about better getting to know one’s own self, in it, I came across a valuable nugget that rang very familiar for my professional work.

The author talks about the importance of asking yourself WHAT questions more often than WHY, when going through self-reflective exercises.

Funny enough, this is a golden rule among facilitators too!

Eurich posits (and I strongly agree) that while WHAT questions generate possibilities, creativity and breadth of thought, “WHY” questions can often shut down those paths of positive exploration.

When facilitating, I always encourage participants to ask themselves questions like, “What were all the events that happened?” or “What are you worried about ?”; “What are you proud of?” or “What might we need to change?” These lead to more productive ideas than WHY questions.

The downside of WHY

WHY questions often seem to lead – one way or another – to criticism or limiting thoughts. (“Why can’t we get this right?”, “Why haven’t we been doing it that way all along?”, or “Why won’t the other team see things our way?” “Why did this happen to us?”).

When we ask WHY questions (on a personal or professional level) we are examining the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which can lead us to very superficial answers.  Our brains search for the easiest response.  WHY can lead to reduced decision quality as we fall victim to “recency effect”: where the most recent experiences are given disproportionately more weight.

WHY questions can also lead us to being defensive. They can feel accusatory and stir up negative emotions. WHY can draw us to our limitations and keep us trapped in the past.

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” – Ben Franklin

The magic of WHAT

Meanwhile, WHAT questions tend to keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if the information is negative or goes against our beliefs. WHAT questions can draw us towards our potential, keep us curious and help us create a better future.

Asking WHAT encourages us to name our emotions, which can help us to stay in control. (e.g. “What emotion am I feeling right now?” versus “Why am I feeling this way?”)

Transitioning from WHY questions to WHAT can move us from victimhood to clarity and action. (Scroll down below for a master list of questions for your own use!)

And, like with so many other examples of life imitating work, I find this is just as true for organizations undergoing self-reflection and searching for a clear path forward as it is for self-inquiring individuals.

A counter-argument for WHY

In Insight, Eurich quotes Jim Collins in his book “How the Mighty Fall,” where, on the flip side, he suggests companies that get wrapped up in WHAT they are, and don’t understand WHY they got that way, risk becoming extinct. He encourages organizations or groups to ask themselves WHY?

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In the business world, there is a technique called “5 Why’s” which is aimed at drilling to a root issue by pushing past the superficial response to an initial WHY question, by asking Why four more times. “Why did that happen? Why did THAT happen? Why? … Why?…”. The expectation is that repeated query gets a deeper response.

And yet…

I’d argue, however, that you can ask the ‘WHY’ question that Jim Collins references in a WHAT format.

For example:

“What are all the factors that have contributed to our success?”

“What is our purpose?”

“What keeps our customers coming back?”

“What can we do differently?  Better?”

“What holds us in the present?”

“What blocks us from moving forward?”

“What happens if the customer stops buying from us? Talking to us?”

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Self-awareness meets facilitation

While considering how both Eurich’s views and those of facilitators are so similar on the WHAT versus WHY question, I started thinking whether I might be on to something greater.

I began considering what other areas of facilitation methodology (like the ORID method that I use) that could be applied to a person’s everyday self-reflection – not just in a professional setting. (Look at that, another WHAT question!)

In The Courage to Lead by R. Brian Stanfield, he promotes exactly that – the use of facilitative practice for deeper self-exploration.

I have begun to apply this theory of facilitation in my inner world – taking myself through the Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional steps as part of my own self-reflection at the end of the day (especially after, say, a professional engagement I’ve led or a family event that has left me with lots to think about).

I’ve found it is in fact helping to lead me to wiser, more satisfactory conclusions and decisions – rather than leaving me ruminating or losing sleep over an experience.

Now I’m left to wonder what other connections between organizational health and personal wellness can be made. WHAT do you think?

Here is a quick guide to reframe less productive WHY questions into more production WHAT questions.

Non productive Productive
  • Why am I in this situation?
  • Why do these things always happen to me / us?

 

  • What are the actual events and happenings?
  • What do I remember someone actually saying?
  • What words did they use?
  • What happened first?  Second? Third?
  • Why did he say that?

 

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • What am/are I/we worried about?
  • What am/are I/we excited about?
  • Why can’t the other group be helpful?
  • Why can’t our leader think more like we do?

 

  • What role do I/we play in this situation?
  • What might be the motivation of our leader?
  • What might be the motivation of the other team?
  • What might be important to the other team?
  • What might the other team be worried about?
  • What do I/we need to move on?
  • Why did this happen to me?

 

  • What are the implications of this situation for me?
  • What are some alternatives?
  • What are the risks and benefits associated with the alternatives?
  • What am I prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • What am I not prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • Why should I expect anything different to happen?
  • What might I do differently next time?
  • What steps can I / we take in the future?