Making Assumptions: A Story of Failure and Learning - International Coaching Federation
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Making Assumptions: A Story of Failure and Learning

Posted by Sara Smith, MCC | February 20, 2018 | Comments (23)

While coaching:

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.

Sara Smith, MCC

Sara Smith, MCC, is the 2020 Chair of the ICF Professional Coaches Global Board. She is principal of Smith Leadership. Sara worked for IBM for nearly 30 years and finished her tenure as an internal executive coach and transformational consultant. Since leaving IBM, Sara continues to work with business executives, athletic coaches and university executives. Sara has been involved with ICF since 2001, where her passion for the profession led to her to become an active member in ICF North Texas. She was part of the chapter leadership team for eight years. She founded the ICF Southeast Region and served as its co-leader for six years. Sara has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Texas Christian University and is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) and a Master Certified Coach (MCC).

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Comments (23)

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Great column. Not only was it a great reminder for me I am sharing it with two coaching clients who are working through trust issues with each other. Your column was so timely and written in such a down to earth real way. THANK YOU!

    Rebecca Kraus
    ICF Michigan Chapter

  2. Dana says:

    I love the transparency in your example.

    • Sara says:

      Thanks, Dana. I tried being perfect when I was a young professional. In retrospect, I worked too hard, failed too often and learned almost nothing! So I tried a different path. My vulnerability hero is Brene Brown – she articulates the journey of finding herself through being vulnerable so well! And over time, she has become incredibly powerful in her vulnerable honesty. That the way I want to be when I grow up! Thanks, my friend!.

  3. Hi Sarah
    Really enjoyed your piece. I have embraced the practice of curiosity in all I do. I know that my early experience as a coach and trainer helped me get to this point. I agree becoming curious is simple and definitely not an easy practice. I like your description of using curiosity to shift from a helper (I think teller) to partner (I think open, non-judging and focused on the other person). Now that I live my life mostly in curiosity I am constantly amazed at how much more accepting I am and how I really seek to understand others. I have learned to be comfortable at times in ambiguity, using curiosity to gain clarity and greater understanding of the unique perspectives of others. I have also learned that when I make an assumption there is a 99.99% chance I am off the mark. Thanks again.

  4. Sara says:

    Kathy, you echo my experience. My husband is gentle – well, not always gentle – when he reminds me I’m making up a story to fill in what I don’t know. Curiosity is an easier fall back position in oh, so many ways. Thanks for taking time to respond! I wish you all the best! Sara

  5. Tatiana Beloborodova says:

    Hi, Sara, thank you very much for this article. Yes, our assumption can play with us and bring us to a judgment and to a wrong answer from client and with the assumption is very easy to loose a coach presence and break a contact with a client. Tatiana hank you again for sharing with us your mastery.

    • Sara says:

      Tatiana, How right you are! Assumptions are often too easy to make. I try to remind myself that I just made something up and not rely on it’s accuracy. Thank you for taking time to read my post and comment on it. Best of fortune in all you do, Sara

  6. Sharon Coleman says:

    Sara, great piece. Thanks for taking the time to cover a topic that coaches…new and experienced can identify with. Yes, assuming is a human thing!

    • Sara says:

      Sharon, it’s so good to here from you! I love the fact that we are in a profession that invites us to grown and question at every turn. Curiosity is the anchor in all we do. Thanks again, Sara

  7. says:

    Hi Sara,
    You have highlighted a simple truth for all relationships, coaching and other relationships. As I read your post I got reconnected to my very first area of improvement that I realized, as I was going through coaching training – to replace assumption with curiosity. Reading this now is a powerful reminder and re-assessment of how I have been doing on this.
    It is energizing to read something as direct and simple as this. Lovely post!!

  8. Donna says:

    Thank you Sara. This is the biggest area of growth for me as a coach. I know all this, but as you said, my brain jumps to ‘helping’ rather than partnering which is a lovely distinction.
    Gratefully yours,

    • Sara says:

      Donna, One of the thing that feeds me is that we are all in this together. We keep working together to make ourselves and our profession better and better. Thanks for being a part of the community! Sara

  9. Tu artículo es muy inspirador y concuerdo plenamente en que es sencillo pero no tan fácil, tal vez. Considero que es práctica, práctica y práctica. Muchas gracias por compartirlo.

    • Sara says:

      Gracias por su nota: continuemos trabajando en nosotros mismos para el beneficio de nuestros clientes. ¡Gracias otra véz! Sara

  10. right Sara,
    an insightful article.
    What rings a bell in my head is the phenomenon of “mind-reading”: You think that you know what the other person thinks or feels. However, you may be totally wrong…;-(
    Whenever, I get a similar feedback (“No, you don’t”) I know, that I am on a wrong track, which triggers me to increase my degree of sensitivity and alertness. And yes, I rather ask questions than make statements.
    I would add: There is one aspect in which I have in fact quite a lot of assumptions – in the field of what I believe about my clients and the coaching process. E.g. I believe “There is always a solution”, “The client works out the best solution for him/her ideally him-/herself” or “There is always a solution”.

    • Sara says:

      Matthias, You are so right! I find it harder to coach when I know a lot about the subject – it gets in my way. What I’ve learned is that believing there is always a solution is not the same as believe the client can find their own answer. When the client looks for their answers, it encourages them to do the work and allows us to be the witness to their work. Thanks for you thoughts and for your work as a coach. I wish you all the best, Sara

  11. says:


    Thanks for your beautifully-written article on such a key coaching skill. (And one that any human can benefit from!) I love the way you put it: “I can engage pure wonder that isn’t colored by what I make up” — exactly!


  12. Lynne says:

    Good day Sara,

    Thank you so much for this timely reminder. I am a very new coach struggling a bit diving into difficult areas. However remaining curious, non judgemental and keeping my thoughts out of it are such a good reminders. I really like your examples and they hit home for me at a great time!

    These coaching situations are someone else’s life, their hopes and dreams along with challenges etc. Their solutions will fit them, and them alone as we are each unique.

    I appreciate your post. And will be using these today :o)

    All my best

  13. Celia Teizen says:

    Hello Sara,

    Thank you for your words of wisdom! I’m a coach, but first of all I’m a training and development person for a long time and I really put the hat on my head when I read your text! It is so wise and that phase: “Wait – that it’s not how is suppose to go!” Oh my, I said that so many times this “perfect phase” in my professional life. Most of the case because I knew how a perfectionist I’m. Imagine when I’m making an assumption, do you think it is a perfect assumption? Oh yesss, and it cannot be wrong!
    But I did not realize I was doing assumptions, or did not control myself and face it to be more supportive coach.
    So, I really appreciate your text, your comments here for many other coaches, I have learned so much.
    I really understand what do you want to do with ICF and the change everybody are looking for. I’m very curious about and I’m looking for to participate.
    Thank you again.


  14. Agatha Igho U says:

    Dear Sara,

    Hmmmmmm…….thought provoking but, very true.

    Thanks for sharing…I need to look inward and strive to be a partner rather than a helper.

    Warm Regards,

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