On Making Assumptions


READ TIME: 4m 15s


How many times have you thought something, told yourself that you’re right, and then acted as if what you thought was right - all without even realising you were doing any of those things? 

I recently heard Deborah Frances-White at a Guilty Feminist event describe assumptions perfectly as “those things you don’t know you’re making.” We make assumptions all the time and we do it unconsciously: good ones, bad ones; assumptions about ourselves and assumptions about others.

They can sometimes be useful - often not, especially at work.

A quick blast of everyday assumptions that springs to mind (and do add your own) would include assumptions about:

  • What’s possible.

  • What’s possible with the time/resources/people we have.

  • What’s not possible. 

  • What’s impossible.

  • What that person or group of people is thinking.

  • What they think of me. 

  • What they are capable of and what they think I am capable of.

  • How this meeting will go and who has already decided what.

  • How likely we are to agree or disagree.

  • That when we use the same words we attach the same meaning to those words. (A simple illustration of this is the word ‘soon’, which to you might mean in the next 3 days, and to me might mean by the end of today).

And watch out for these ‘core assumptions’ noted by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator (which I just wrote about here) including:

  • I understand the situation: those who see it differently don’t.

  • I am right: those who disagree are wrong.

  • I have pure motives: those who disagree have questionable motives.

  • My feelings are justified.

And the impact of those assumptions:

  • Behaving as though a decision has already been made.

  • Paying more attention to what I want to say next than to the person who is speaking.

  • Being closed to alternatives.

  • Listening to some, not listening to others.

  • Judging others.

  • Judging ourselves.

  • Limiting what is possible for ourselves, for others, for a team, for a group.

  • Taking inappropriate action.

  • Withholding information.

  • Missing out on hearing something that might be useful.

  • Discouraging yourself from speaking up.

  • Modifying your contribution.

Again, the list goes on - do add your own.

As part of the Skilled Facilitator Course, I spent significant time uncovering my own assumptions, and learning how to support individuals and teams to notice the assumptions they are making, notice the potential impact of those assumptions, and, most importantly, test those assumptions. Doing this work increases the chances that the conversation and indeed the work is based as closely in the facts and the present as possible so that in turn, it has more of the most useful impact.

Based on what I learned, here are three things you can do:

1. Get to know the assumptions you make 

Think about a recent meeting or conversation. Regardless of whether they were useful or not (that comes later) list all the assumptions connected to that meeting/conversation that you made before, during and after.

Take a look through the list and notice:

  • Which assumptions were useful to make – we can absolutely make useful assumptions and we’ll explore this in another blog post, but for now, an example would be ‘I assumed they have a detailed knowledge of what this client needs and that makes them them a useful person to scrutinise this proposal’

  • Which assumptions were not so useful?

  • Which assumptions did you act on in the meeting/conversation – what was it that you said and did, or held back from saying, and what was the impact of that?

  • Which assumptions are worth testing? In other words, what could you learn (by asking) that will support you to think and act from a place of facts rather than assumptions?

2. Notice Assumptions in Preparation

Having got to know the assumptions you have been making a bit better, you will most likely find yourself noticing them more and more. So, you have created an opportunity for yourself to add some assumption testing to your preparation for your meetings and conversations. 

What assumptions are you making?

What assumptions might others be making that you can do something about to increase the chances that you are all working with the facts?

3. Test Assumptions

In preparation and in the moment, what can you say and do to find out whether your assumptions are correct?

The challenge is to be truly open to the possibility that your assumption is not entirely (or at all) correct.

I notice an assumption that I am now making as I write this: an assumption that you are thinking ‘this sounds like it will take forever and nothing will ever get done because we’ll be stuck in a world of noticing and testing assumptions. Well, if you are thinking that, allow me to offer some reassurance, in that the individuals and teams I have worked with who have paid more attention to assumptions have found that the additional clarity and honesty and focused attention has ultimately saved time. It has also fostered a sense of responsibility for what they say and do, and how they listen to each other. 

And as always, this is an offer not an instruction; go towards and choose what you believe could be useful to you.