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Suspending Assumptions

How many times have your assumptions led you to say or do something that made absolutely no sense or brought out a very surprising negative response in another person? Making assumptions and especially the wrong assumptions gets us in trouble in our interpersonal relationships, communications and decision making. There is a seemingly easy and yet hard to execute tool called the Ladder of Assumptions that can make a significant difference in the actions one chooses to take and thus impact the results of our efforts. I’ve seen the use of this technique make impactful and positive differences in the way customer service is handled, the way a boss talks to an employee and the way a major decision is made, etc.

What is the Ladder of Assumptions? The ladder of assumptions as shown below consists of 5 rungs starting at the bottom of the ladder and working up.

1. Available Data – This is where the total pool of data resides; the facts, the figures, the findings. This is a key place for us to spend time and many of us skip this step entirely.

2. Selected Data – This is what we select to observe from the total pool of available data.  Many times we select a piece of data and no one knows that is what we are focusing on as they may have selected something else out of that pool of data.

3. Assumptions – Here is where we start to get ourselves in trouble if we either selected the wrong pieces of data or did not let anyone know which data we are focusing on. We begin to make assumptions based upon the data we are focusing on.

4. Conclusions – Here we draw conclusions on what needs to happen based upon the facts we have interpreted.

5. Actions – Finally, we take actions based upon the data we’ve selected, the assumptions we’ve made and the conclusions we’ve drawn.

This all sounds pretty simple and easy until we realize that the person or persons we are interacting with don’t understand us, resist us or simply reject what we are saying. Where have we gone wrong?  Most of the time, we simply haven’t made our thinking visible to the other person and therefore they have to make their own assumptions and use their own data to interpret the conversation.

How to Use the Ladder of Assumptions The simple answer is to make your thinking visible on every rung of the ladder whether you are a speaker or a listener. It isn’t easy to do and takes practice.  Pick an easy conversation and practice making your thinking visible either on paper or with a person as you walk up the ladder of assumptions. Next, practice on a harder issue and see what difference it makes in your results. You will be surprised!

We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be. And our attitudes and behaviors grow out of these assumptions.”

– Stephen R. Covey