Do Our Assumptions Limit Us?

By Cindy Vallance

The tenth and final principle by Nancy Kline to build a thinking environment is about the power of asking INCISIVE QUESTIONS.

We all make assumptions. We couldn’t get through a day without them. But do we limit ourselves with our assumptions or do we expand our own range of possibilities and help others to do so through the power of positive assumptions?

An illustration:

Person A  I would like to share an idea I have with my line manager but I can’t.

Person B Why not?

A I believe s/he will laugh at me.

B What are you assuming to believe s/he will laugh at you?

A I am assuming s/he will think my idea is stupid.

B Why are you assuming s/he will think your idea is stupid?

A I am assuming I am stupid.

This is usually when the questioner might say something like ‘Of course you aren’t stupid. Go talk to your manager!’ And we may or may not take this advice and talk to our manager.

But what if Person B said instead:

B Do you really think it is true that you are stupid?

A Well no…

B What are your reasons for not thinking you are stupid?

A Because I (person fills in the blank)…

B What would you have to assume instead for you to share your idea with your line manager?

A I would have to assume I am intelligent.

B So if you knew that you are intelligent, how would you take that step to share your idea?

A I would simply talk with him/her. My manager might not agree with my idea but I would certainly feel like I was making an effort worth taking seriously. 

Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that the manager won’t laugh at Person A’s idea. But if that is the case the person suggesting the idea can still walk away knowing they have genuinely made the effort. They could also use the opportunity for a further discussion. And, on the other hand, just think what positive results might occur if the manager did support the idea and what opportunities would be missed if the idea had never been shared?

A health warning on incisive questions. They don’t work by stealth. The two people engaged in this type of exchange need to both agree up front that they want to have this kind of conversation and that it is okay to question the other’s assumptions. If this agreement doesn’t happen the questioner can come across as either overly aggressive or attempting to practice amateur psychoanalysis, neither which is useful. But when two people are both willing to try it out, testing assumptions through incisive questions can be very powerful.


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