The Value and Trap of Assumptions

It’s part of the human perceptual framework that we make assumptions.  There’s a lot of data coming in, and we can’t catalog and analyze each piece without losing our minds or seeming to impact the rate at which we move through the world.  We make assumptions based on past experience—and prejudices and fears, among other things.  Senge’s Ladder of Inference (see his The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook page 242) goes as follows (note that my bulleted list starts at the bottom and climbs the ladder):

  • We gather observable “data” and experiences.
  • We select a subset of the observed data.
  • We add cultural and personal meanings to the subset of that data.
  • We draw conclusions about the thing observed based on the meanings we have added.
  • We adopt beliefs based on our conclusions.
  • We take actions based on the beliefs we have adopted.

Note that the double-loop learning post also points to a similar process, but in double-loop learning we are trying to walk through this ladder consciously; the mental model is formed at the conclusions/beliefs steps in the ladder.

This all sounds good and so rational and even wise.  The problem is that we typically do this in a lightning quick manner—milliseconds—and we’re not necessarily very good at either selecting the right subset of data to look at nor are the cultural and personal meanings we add necessarily very helpful.

As a teenager, I used to do a bit of a role-playing game in the small town I lived in.  The town was big enough to have a bus system, and my family lived on the west side.  I would get dressed in a pink and white ruffled dress, white pumps, and wear my hair down, and then I’d ride downtown on the bus and back and watch how people reacted to me.  Then, I’d go home, put on a split cowhide, fringed leather coat with bone buttons, tight jeans drastically flared at the knees to create huge “skirts” from the knee down, a red felt brimmed hunter’s hat on my head, and moccasins (instead of shoes) I’d made myself and trimmed with rabbit fur.  Then I’d catch the bus at the same place and ride the same route on the same day and watch how people reacted to me.  Let’s just say, the difference was both amazing and educational.

One of the exercises I often use in the Collaboration for Cross-functional Teams class I teach is to have a stranger come into the class to do some minor errand, and then I ask the class questions about that person.  Rarely does the class describe the person accurately—who that person is, per se.  But, the stories they come up with in regard to that person as I ask them questions can be amazingly detailed.  Sometimes those stories are also 100% inaccurate once we debrief with the subject of our conjecture.

So, what can we do about this?  Mindful thinking is one thing we might embrace.  First of all, notice your assumptions and check them out.  Just as you would when having a real conversation or engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue with someone else, when you notice something in your thinking that may be an assumption, call out it, say as much aloud: “I think I may have been making an assumption.  Can you tell me if . . . is accurate?”  Just by checking out our assumptions, we can avert a lot of unnecessary conflict and learn a great deal about ourselves in the process.

When I mediate cases in the county court, it is part of the standard process I use to invite each party to explain how we all came to be in the room today and what attempts had been made previously to work out the problem.  It’s interesting to me how often new information comes out or something is clarified in these open statements such that the conflict simply unknits itself, and we are able to write up a mediation agreement quickly and get on with our lives.  Sometimes, the case is simply dismissed by the plaintiff.  How might things have gone differently if either party had been attentive to the risk of unhelpful and useful assumptions?

So, here’s a checklist you can use the next time things seem to start heating up:

  • What data did I gather and what experiences am I bringing to bear on this situation that may or may not be helpful?
  • When I selected the subset of the observed data that I would consider valid, did I select the right subset?  Did I, perhaps, not even gather all the data that would have been useful?
  • What cultural and personal meanings did I apply to the subset of that data?  Are these meanings relevant?  Are there others that would have been more useful?
  • When I drew conclusions about my observations based on the meanings I added, was I basing those conclusions on good data and useful meanings?
  • Have I adopted beliefs about the person or situation based on the conclusions I have drawn that may be skewed based on bad data or irrelevant or unhelpful cultural or personal meanings?
  • Have I taken actions based on poorly founded beliefs about the situation or person that may be contributing to the problem that ensnares me/us and may be unknit by revisiting the data or meanings I have applied in getting myself to this point?

This may sound complex right now, but it can actually move almost as fast as the ladder of assumptions process that got you into the situation you are in now.  To test this, find a friendly colleague and run through a scenario familiar to both of you.  Or, contact me or attend one of my classes where you will likely have a chance to do this with other class participants.

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