Making Assumptions: A Story of Failure and Learning
Me (the coach): “I hear tension in your voice.”
Client: “No, you don’t.”
Wait—that’s not how it is supposed to go! In coach training, they said to listen for shifts and use them to create clarity. I had heard a change in her voice, and I assumed I knew what it was. I went on to make up it was indecision. The key I’d missed in training was the mastery of the coaching tool—don’t make up what a shift means, just note it and ask.
My assumption was wrong, and my statement threatened to undermine the trust between us. But she was a great client (creative, resourceful and whole) and called me on it. Her courage allowed me to see my error, my habit of assuming I knew what a client is experiencing.
I learned that assumptions can be a trap. The key is understanding assumptions. They are stories we make up to fill in for what we don’t know. The dictionary explains it as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”
In his book The Four Agreements, author Don Miguel Ruiz warns:
The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth! We invent a whole story that’s only truth for us, but we believe it. One assumption leads to another assumption; we jump to conclusions, and we take our story very personally…We make assumptions, we believe we are right about our assumptions, and then we defend our assumptions…
The truth is, assumptions are sneaky. We can be in their grasp before we realize it. Imagine I am driving down the street when someone cuts me off and races away. I assume them to be a reckless fool. I rarely consider it might be someone rushing to the hospital.
My story is a cautionary tale and points out what happens next. First comes an assumption, followed by a rush to judgment. Here is something to try: notice how assumptions appear in your mind and then listen for judgment to follow. This isn’t the kind of judgment that engages wisdom or discernment. It is the process of jumping to a conclusion without supporting information. Don’t worry—it’s a human thing to do. It’s also a habit that can be overcome.
Creating assumptions and then judging is a seductive habit. It is so easy and seems to provide clarity. It also offers the comfort of knowing. Even though it’s a lie. So what’s the cost as a coach? Consider this scenario: My client begins to weep, and I assume they are sad, so I ask questions about sadness. If I resist my assumption, I ask what is in their tears. I may learn they are tears of joy—a possibility I hadn’t seen. Mastery in coaching is never making assumptions. Never.
How can we eliminate the impact of assumptions and judgment? The answer is simple. When we hear a voice in our head making up answers, recognize the response and stop. Then replace the rush to judgment with a rush to curiosity. Don’t make it up; ask about what you don’t know. You’ll help create truthful clarity for your client.
This skill is at the heart of emotional intelligence. When I understand what triggers my assumptions, self-awareness helps me shift to curiosity instead. Rather than creating my version of the truth, I can engage pure wonder that isn’t colored by what I make up. I can focus on looking for possibilities.
When you sense assumptions trying to fill in the gaps of not knowing, rush to curiosity instead. Become aware of triggers that invite you to create stories and judgments. By the way, I said it was simple; I didn’t say it was easy. Sometimes my “rush to curiosity” is challenging because I really want to help my client. What I’ve learned is that when I shift from helper to partner, I bring more clarity and, therefore, value. Taming assumptions and encouraging curiosity has been a critical step for me as a coach.
Before I finish, I would be remiss if I didn’t tie the challenge of making assumptions to the evolution of our ICF. As an organization, we have committed to strengthen our brand, improve credentialing, create societal change and be positioned for the future. Some of it may feel ambiguous and invite assumptions and judgment. As you hear about shifts and changes, I invite you to join me in a place of curiosity as we consider what is possible together. Let’s commit to be advocates of change—courageous, creative and curious.