The Power of Assumptions

In our daily interactions we make on-the-fly assumptions about people or situations. Assumptions impact our behaviour in that they influence how we engage with others and how we make decisions. Our assumptions are based on our values, beliefs and experience, and we apply them unconsciously.

Understanding the assumptions you hold can help you in situations where you are caught in the rut of conflict or when you need to solve a problem and are struggling to get into the zone of thinking differently. Alan Alda (1936), American actor, director, screenwriter and author, said: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once and a while, or the light won’t come in.”

The following questions can help you to make those assumptions explicit and to “clean your windows to the world”:

  • What are you assuming about your own knowledge? What are facts and what are your own conclusions?

  • What do you assume about your abilities? What are the real limitations and who has enforced those on you?

  • What are the assumptions you hold about the other person’s motives? What do you think are his/her expectations about your motivation?

  • What do you assume about the other person’s knowledge or abilities?

  • What do you assume about the outcome of the conversation or the engagement? Do you expect a positive outcome, or do you anticipate the conversation to be a waste of time?

  • One of the five disciplines that Peter Senge writes about in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990) is that of team learning. He says that team learning entails dialogue, and the capacity of team members to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together.

Making your assumptions clear can help you to understand what to suspend. It can also help you to have productive and innovative conversations and relationships.