Don’t Ass-U-Me Anything!

When I was in school, my uncle Joe shared this old saying with me: to “assume” makes an “ass out of you and me”. This play on the word assume definitely makes a lot of sense. When there is a problem, if we dig down under the layers of misunderstandings, there usually lies a big mess of assumptions and erroneous beliefs. Lack of clarity and understanding can mean we barge straight into situations and conversations that are driven by sketchy information at best.

Basing our assumptions about a situation on little bites of information can lead to firmly held and potentially damaging beliefs. Assuming we’ve got it right, that we know what people mean and that their perspective must be the same as our’s are all recipe for disaster. 

Ladder of Reference

Professor Chris Argyris (1923 – 2013) former Professor at Harvard Business School and Yale University identifies how humans come to their beliefs via assumptions in his model The Ladder of Inference.

The Ladder journey travels like this:
– I OBSERVE data (see hear feel)
– I SELECT data from what I observe
– I add MEANING (cultural, personal, cognitive)
– I make ASSUMPTIONS based on my meanings
– I adopt BELIEFS about the world
– I BEHAVE accordingly

This ladder often occurs in the blink of an eye. It is also something that drives our behaviour throughout the day. Imagine heading out to work in the morning. You step outside and observe the grey clouds, that it is June and so draw a very quick conclusion that grabbing your umbrella would be a wise decision – and behave accordingly.

This ladder can also lead us to fixed beliefs that mean we can get caught in what Argyris calls ‘The Reflexive Loop’, which we means we can ONLY seek the data that confirms our belief.


1. STOP!
Identify where assumptions and fixed beliefs might be having a negative impact on your work.
Knowing when a lack of information or data might be driving either a confirmation bias or simply a critical gap in understanding is the first step to being able to address the issue. Heightening awareness of beliefs that may be fixed before you have explored what lies beneath, or you’ve simply held that believe for a long time without question allows us to open up thinking.

Assume positive intent first ( ie. mistake rather than malice; positive intent rather than harm; lack of clarity rather than withholding information) Most assumptions arise simply by not having the right conversations, rather than being driven by any machiavellian agenda. It primes our conversations for trust if we test our assumptions rather than believing them to be truth.

3. ASK!
Simply asking clarifying questions that can lead to a deeper understanding.

Authentic dialogue is always the best antidote for major assumptions or beliefs that are railroading progress or certainty. Be curious about finding out more about what people are thinking and feeling.

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