A client, Frank, has a difficult relationship with a colleague. They avoid each other and it is becoming an issue for them both. Stuck in a comfort zone, neither is willing to change. Frank tells me that his colleague thinks less of him and that annoys him. I ask him how he knows this. Frank assures me he just knows it from the way this colleague treats him.

Frank could be right and he could be wrong. The important point here is that he is operating in the land of assumptions. This is a dangerous and murky land because these assumptions drive our behaviour and for much of the time we are unaware of this. Assumptions are invisible hand that directs how we interact with the world. We make decisions and take actions based on what we believe to be true.

Peter Senge sums this up in his book The Fifth Discipline:

"We live in a world of self-generating beliefs that remain largely untested. We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience."

We all do this all the time. Our brain dislikes gaps in what we know so we fill in the blanks. It's a powerful way of making sense of the world we live in and it can get in the way our being in relationship with others.

Another example is a client who manages a team of developers. In a recent meeting, he closed down the meeting ahead of schedule and without covering several important topics. He explained that he noticed that the team was bored so it was best to move on. When I asked how he knew it was boredom, and he agreed that he had inferred boredom from what he saw was shifting of papers and eyes cast downwards. He could have been right, and another explanation was that the team was uncomfortable by the nature of the discussion. And there are possibly other explanations like a personal conflict in the team that my client was unaware of.

The challenge for us as human beings – in our personal and professional lives – is to become aware of these underlying assumptions before we take action.

The ladder of inference – developed by Chris Argyris – is an enlightening tool to explore how we make meaning in the world. The ladders shows how we select data from the world of facts and then make assumptions based on the meaning we've added to this selected data. From these assumptions, we generate beliefs about this world, and then take actions based on these beliefs.

We like to think our beliefs are the truth and this is all based on real data. In fact, unless facts are tested with others, they are only a perspective. This is a hard realization for data driven people of the tech sector.

Both the examples I've given illustrate how the clients took a subset of the data available and made assumptions and took action. Their actions could have been what was needed but in their unawareness of the base assumption, they limited their options.

A way forward is increasing our self-awareness of our thinking and how we've arrived at a decision for action. Here are a few steps to follow next time you find yourself in this place:

  • Take a moment and reflect on what is behind your decision. What are you taking as fact, which is really an assumption? What other interpretation of the 'facts' could there be?
  • Test your assumption. Perhaps share what your assumption is with people around you. Sometimes, just naming it to yourself helps you realize that is just an assumption and not fact.
  • Choose your response. With more awareness of what's motivating you in that moment, you are able to choose a response that will better serve you and those around you.