First Do Nothing.

| July 25, 2015 | 1 Comment

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 Battle the Mischief of Assumptions 

By Elle Allison-Napolitano, PhD. Copyright© 2015, All Rights Reserved.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking about how assumptions create a lot of   mischief in families, communities, and in teams and organizations. I’ve certainly blundered from my own assumptions often enough that now, whenever I catch myself feeling Absolutely Certain, I take it as a sign that an assumption or two is lurking close behind.
     The reason assumptions create mischief on occasion, is that they come to us fast and casual, without a whole lot of critical thinking or testing of the data. Different from beliefs (granted, beliefs can be faulty too, but that’s another topic), assumptions are untested and often ill considered. They are conjured out of a limited amount of data — data that most often only confirms what we already believe or want to believe or need to believe.  Assumptions arise out of our baser instincts.

Chris Argyris, who during his lifetime added so much to what we’ve come to understand  about organizational learning, designed a mental model known as the Ladder of Inference. The Ladder of Inference makes visible the process by which our minds quickly clamber up a metaphorical ladder of thought to form assumptions (see link below to learn more).

Here’s how it happens: Whenever we experience anything in the world, millions of bits of information come at us. Based on our existing beliefs however, our minds filter in only a small fraction of that data, and doesn’t even “see” the rest. Then working with just the small amount of data our minds filtered in, we draw on our personal and cultural knowledge, and add meaning to the data. Once we assign meaning, we quickly assume we know the truth and the reality of the situation. Then we draw conclusions and adopt new beliefs about the world or reinforce old beliefs. Finally, we take actions in the “real world” as if the reality we conjured in our minds, based on incomplete and likely erroneous data and meaning, were all true.

And this is why people say to us on occasion; “What were you thinking!??!?! And we seem at a loss for words.  “I just assumed…,” we say.

Much of the time our assumptions aid us in making reasonable decisions, thousands of time per day. But when the stakes are high, assumptions have the potential to undermine even the best ideas.  So how to battle the mischief caused by our assumptions? For starters, begin with being intentional about noticing as much information possible in a new situation. For several minutes, first do nothing. Notice what you see first, but then ask yourself questions like these:
1. What else do I see when I look again?
2. How might others with a different perspective from mine interpret this?
3. Who else might know something about this?
4. What have I missed before when I made assumptions like this?
5. What certainties do I hold that could be wrong for this situation?
Try out these questions and let me know how they work for you!
 For more information on The Ladder of Inference, click here:
Best Regards,

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Category: BLOG, Elle Allison Napolitano, Leadership Development, Leadership Resilience

Comments (1)

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  1. Maureen Hogan says:

    One of the Toltec’s Four Agreements, along with

    always do your best
    be impeccable with your word
    don’t take things personally

    simple concepts, hard to do!

    Thanks for your article.

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