A Coaching Power Tool Created by Ali Farahani
(Leadership Coach, AUSTRIA)
When we believe in lies, we cannot see the truth, so we make thousands of assumptions and we take them as truth. One of the biggest assumptions we make is that the lies we believe are the truth!– Don Miguel Ruiz
Inquiry vs. Assumption power tool is based on the simple yet powerful coaching skill called “Reframing Perspective.”Reframing helps us break free from chains of limiting beliefs by looking at an event, situation, or our thoughts from a different angle or perspective, probably quite different from our own, leading us to new insights, ideas, solutions, and consequentially, new empowering perspectives. The coach’s ability to help the client shift from a disempowering perspective to another empowering perspective is crucial to the client’s forward movement.
According to ICF , a coach“reframes and articulates to help the client understand from another perspective what he/she wants or is uncertain about.” (Core Competencies, Direct Communication)
The assumption is something that you accept as true without question or proof (Cambridge Dictionary 2020). It is synonymous with guess, hunch, expectation, belief, acceptance, and suspicion.
The inquiry is the process or act of asking a question or asking for information about someone or something(Cambridge Dictionary 2020). It is synonymous with hearing, examination, analysis, study, and research.
Certainty is the quality or state of being certain, especially based on evidence. (Marriam Webster Dictionary). It is synonymous with assurance, confidence, positiveness, doubtlessness, and sureness.
The core idea behind the Inquiry vs. Assumption power tools to shift the client’s thinking from a potential disempowering perspective – my assumptions are the truth – to an empowering perspective – I inquire to know the truth so that a) they make decisions that are aligned with reality and b) make those decisions with confidence.
We go through life making all kinds of assumptions. We take our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs for granted without asking ourselves: “How do I know this? Who told me that? How true is this assumption?”. We make assumptions about people’s feelings, motivations, behaviors, what they think and feel about us, their intentions, strengths, and weaknesses. We even extend our assumptions to our strengths and weaknesses, and the reality: what is possible and not possible.
Because we can’t know everything, we assume what we don’t know. The ability to think, perceive, and imagine things despite our limited sensory organs, separates us from other sentient beings. Our brain seeks out and remembers patterns of cause and effect, and once it sees a pattern, it is impossible to unsee that pattern. Consequentially, using this pattern can fill in the blanks in similar situations, predict things, and make choices where there is not enough data. In time, those patterns, influenced by past experiences, culture, and other people, shape our tendencies and rule us from within all so subtly.
While some assumptions are safe to make, that is to say, their consequences are not of paramount importance– like assuming that the watermelon you bought is going to be sweet and juicy, other assumptions may damage relationships, block and limit possibilities, pore fear into hearts, and prevent us from moving forward– like assuming that our marriage is destined to fail just like our parents failed in theirs, or that our partner knows how we feel and so there is no need to show our affections.
Our assumptions are not disempowering by nature – only when we treat them as facts, except those to be accurate, decide and act upon them, lead us to unknown places. When it works, that is to say, we achieve the desired outcome, it feels empowering, and we feel confident, safe, and in control; “I am right!”. Even then, all along, we are anxious and uncertain. We don’t know it until we know it. But if we don’t get the desired outcome, we’ll doubt our abilities. Next time around, anxiety is all we’ve left with; “What-If I’m wrong again?”.
Maybe, the most disempowering assumptions are those we make about our strengths. They fill us with over-confidence or drain our self-esteem. In either case, they rob us from fulfilling our true potential and condemn us to live a life of illusion and disempowerment.
Similarly, our assumptions about events, situations, and people’s intent and behavior reduce our choices and affect our social skills. Assuming how others think and feel will stop us from listening intently, responding effectively, and asking the right questions, which leaves others feeling misunderstood and not appreciated; we lose influence and feel left alone. Assuming it is too late to start or quit something leads to no action; you feel like having no choice.
These self-imposed limitations lead us to dead ends, and despite our efforts, we won’t succeed. Assuming things not only does not bring us closer to knowing the truth but also takes us even further away from the truth. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, depression, and loss are the results of unknowing. Fear leads to indecision and is disempowering. Reality is full of possibilities, only if we could look at things the way they truly are and not the way we assume them to be.
When we know something, we feel certain, confident, mighty, and in control. We strive for power and seek greater knowledge. This rare and precious good can be acquired or inquired. According to Prof Davis Kolb’s adult learning theory, we acquire knowledge through the experiential learning process:
…adults learn by having an experience, then reflecting on that experience, coming up with new insights or ideas, and then going out into the world to apply these new insights. Upon applying new insights, adults then have new experiences to learn from. In this way, learning goes on and on in an endless cycle. – ICA, Coaching Influences, Experiential Learning, 2019
Acquiring knowledge is our default mode, and we’re, unconsciously, always operating in this mode. We experience, reflect, conclude and decide. While acquiring knowledge is effective and powerful, when it comes to future events, thoughts, emotions, motivations, and intentions of others, the experiential learning process is deficient at best; not every knowledge can be acquired through experience. In the face of insufficient information, our cognitive process falls back on assumptions and will use them to fill in the blanks. Without them, our thought process will lead to no conclusion. At any particular time, the number of unknowns is way more than knowns and without the power to assume things, our brain will simply hang. Yet, any decision made based on so many unknowns would not be a confident one.
That is why, for example, if something didn’t happen in the past, we can’t conclude, but may assume, that it will not occur in the future. Similarly, If your boss is angry at work, it does not mean he is also angry at home. Or if your college doesn’t say hi to you, it doesn’t mean that she is mad at you, or is she?
Too much of anything makes us sick. Make too many assumptions, and you’re uncertain. Too much uncertainty breeds fear and anxiety. So what can we do?
Thou shalt ask, and thou shalt receive – Matthew 7:7
The process of asking with the intention of clarification, closure, certainty, and awareness is the inquiry process: “thou shalt inquire.”
Instead of making assumptions about others’ feelings, likes or dislikes, or expectations, we must simply ask them. After all, who knows better than them what is in their minds. Inquiring about others’ emotions, thoughts, and expectations towards oneself is a daring but enlightening experience.
Similarly, instead of making assumptions about our strengths or weaknesses, possibilities, emotions, and desires, we must gain awareness by inquiring about our beliefs, values, feelings, and intents.
To live a life of assumption is to live a life of limitations, lies, uncertainty, and disempowerment. A life of constant seeking is unlimited, free, daring, and joyful. Inquiring brings clarity and direction to our thoughts and helps us make informed and confident decisions.
Begin challenging your assumptions. Your assumptions are the windows to the world. Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won’t come in. – Alan Alda
At any given time, we’re faced with two choices: to assume what we know is the truth or to seek out the truth. While we can argue that not all of our assumptions are false or harmful, they don’t bring us closer to reality. To be successful in life, one must be in touch with reality.
But how can we know that we’re assuming something?. Look at the following sentences. What have they in common? Yes, your assumption is correct! There is at least one assumption in each sentence. How do you think these assumptions help someone move forward and make confident decisions?
Most assumptions are very subtle and direct our lives from behind the curtains. They hold us back, move us away from reality and trick us into doing things unconsciously. And when we’re unconscious, we’re not in control, and we slip into the chain of negative conclusions and paint a dark picture of our circumstances and future.
To take back control, we must be conscious of reality. Asking a simple question before making any decision provides us with the certainty we require.
Asking yourself, “How do I know what I know?” is a good starting point for making any decision. Let’s assume your answer would be similar to one of the following responses:
Now check the source of your information: “How reliable is that source?”. If it is a person, ask yourself, “Is it her assumption, thought, feeling, idea, or it is a fact from another source?”. Inquire more; ask the person. If it is a book, article, video, or any other media, look at the author, her credibility, and references. Keep inquiring until either you know everything for certain. Then, and only then, draw your conclusion. Such a decision is a confident one.
- Pickup a decision that you’ve made in the past.
- Remember your thoughts and conclusions leading to that Write them down like the above table.
- Next, identify your assumptions in those thoughts, conclusions, and decisions by asking questions like “How do I know that?” or “How I came to that conclusion?”. Try to adopt your questions accordingly. Write them down.
- Now, answer those questions. If possible, avoid creating new assumptions while answering.
- Compare your answers with your assumptions. See how they may have impacted your decision.
Questions to ask yourself:
- How can I determine if my assumptions are accurate?
- How am I looking at my current situation and options?
- Looking at my decisions, what am I taking for granted?
- What are my potential biases towards my situation, options, and goals?
- What are some other possible perspectives on this issue? Have I considered them?
For the Coach
The coach’s assumptions about her capabilities and client’s strengths, values, beliefs, and perspectives could unarguably impair the coach’s ability to be present, confident, empathic, and non-judgmental and compromise coaching sessions’ success. Although we can’t always avoid certain assumptions, we must inquire about them to find the truth about ourselves and the client. Truth supports our forward movement.
Assumptions about Client
As coaches, we don’t know anything about our client—ICA
Situation: The client speaks in a slow, low pitch tone or fast, high pitch tone. The client uses negative and forceful language like “I can’t do it… it will not work…I have to do it…I hate … I had enough… it makes me crazy… I can’t control …”.
Assumption: Coach assumes to know the client’s feeling and ends up labeling it: “I can see that you’re depressed/ angry/ demotivated/ hopeless/ lost/ … “.
Result: This would either make the client feel worse, judged. It’ll lead to confusion and disconnect. What that could have been an opportunity for uncovering truth becomes an obstacle.
Inquiry: The coach does not assume to know the client’s feelings but acquires the truth through direct questioning. Coach shares her observation with the client and shows genuine curiosity by inquiring about her feelings. For example, the coach may say: “When you said – it makes me crazy- what did you mean by that? Or how does it make you feel?”.
Shift: Now, the client does not feel judged and tells the coach how exactly she feels. The coach and the client know the truth. The coach can support the client constructively unpack her thoughts and emotions.
Session’s Success &Client’s Progress
Situation: The client is either rambling or nonresponsive. Coach tries hard to help the client reach awareness and move forward. Nothing is working.
Assumption: The coach assumes that she is not doing a good job or that the client is not coachable.
Result: Coach blames herself and lose confidence or helps the client by telling and directing. Coach feels tired and demotivated after the session believing the session was a disaster.
Inquiry – Client: The coach does not assume anything about the client’s progress inquires about the client’s progress towards the session goal, invites the client to decide how she wants to proceed in the session, asks about what the client needs in the session, and supports her in achieving that.
Shift: The coach knows the truth about the session and can co-create the best path forward.
Inquiry – Coach: The coach does not assume anything about her abilities as the coach. Instead, she seeks the truth through supervision.
Result: After that session, the coach reaches out to her supervisor. The coach’s supervisor listens to the session’s recording and provides objective feedback.
Shift: Coach now knows the truth about her strengths and areas of improvement. She feels confident, empowered, and motivated.
For the Client
Often one’s version of reality is not in sync with outside reality. This disconnect causes shadowy gaps in our perception, gaps that get filled with assumptions. Coach’s ability to listen for those assumptions and invite the client to inquire about them will dispel the shadows; the client’s truth will fill in the gaps.
Clients may not always be aware of their biases. Listen to the client’s choice of words while expressing herself. Read those expressions back to the client and invite her to look at those through lenses of critical thinking: “How do you know something that you know and how certain are you about that?”.
Other useful questions
- There are lots of “I shouldn’t/ I mustn’t / I have to / I need to,” how do you know that you “shouldn’t / mustn’t / have to / need to” <do that>?
- You said: you need to <do/get that>to <get to/achieve your goal>, how are these two related?
- What makes your perception of your weaknesses accurate?
- When you tell me about <situation, others, yourself>, what is it that you take for granted?
A Case full of Assumptions
Tania was the youngest IT manager in an International Organization. One day, to her surprise, the board selected her as the new Chief Information Officer. Motivated but confused, she assumed that there must be a reason they have chosen her over other more senior managers. She thought: “What is the catch? I’m not senior enough to be a CIO.”Next, she heard a rumor that she was not the board’s first choice, and some managers and members of the previous CIO’s team were against her nomination. She assumed they didn’t like her or believe in her. Consumed by her dark thoughts, she decided not to trust the new team as they may be in cahoots with opposing managers. She decided to trust herself and prove that she was the correct woman for the job.
In the following months, she defined a comprehensive digital transformation plan and attended multiple CIO leadership workshops. She spent most of her time working on ways to improve IT’s image. But to her dissatisfaction, nothing worked as she planned. The board didn’t sign off on her initiatives, the opposing directors’ attacks took all her energy, and IT quality got worst. Her team couldn’t follow her instructions and didn’t support her when she needed them most.
Assuming that her employees are not the best in their job, she recruited new talents. Still, the quality didn’t improve, and managers kept sabotaging her initiatives until the board canceled them. She concluded that the CIO role is too big for her, but the admission will be a sign of weakness, so she blamed others.
Naturally, she focused her attention on the opposition. She assumed the board’s disapproval of her initiatives is due to the opposing managers’ false picture. Thinking that they see her as a weak leader, she answered fire with fire. Consumed by political fights, she lost her objectivity. Things got escalated, and people started to quit. All the whole organization suffered from indecision and inaction. As a last resort, assuming that the organization needs her, she threatened the board with her resignation. To her surprise, they happily accepted.
While reading Tanja’s story, what pattern keeps popping up? Yes, she made most of her decisions based on assumptions. She lost a fantastic opportunity and affected other people’s lives.
A Case for Inquiry
But what if Tania would not have assumed anything? Let’s explore:
She meets with the board and inquires about circumstances leading to her assignment. They tell her that she is a knowledgeable manager with the necessary grit for leading the organization to a new digital era. She asks whether she was their first choice. They might tell her that few managers were unsure if other IT managers would follow her leadership as she is young and less experienced. But the board decided to trust their intuition and give her a chance. Trusted by upper management and confident that her performance and skills made her the only viable choice, she realizes that the opposing managers’ objection provides her with a unique opportunity. By leveraging her knowledge, she can gain their support and use their experience and influence to become more effective.
This time, Tania has no dark assumption about hidden agendas. She meets with her new team and asks their opinion towards her assignment, the state of IT, and improvements in a confident way. Her self-esteem resonates with employees. They feel encouraged and inspired by their new boss. She knows now that she can count on her team. Tania does not feel the urge to prove herself, and no enemies are waiting for her to make mistakes. Focused, she moves her attention to the big picture: the organization’s mission. Together with other senior managers, Taniahosts workshops with the stakeholders to understand their priorities and ways to benefit from digital technology. Well-informed and supported by her team, her well-crafted initiatives receive the board’s approval.
Following several complaints from some senior management, she assumes nothing. She trusts her team, and they trust her. She asks for objective inquiry into the matter. Firm and factual, she demonstrates the fallacy of their complaints and questions their intentions. Tania’s correct posture makes her a formidable leader who worth strong alliance.
References / Resources
Why they are wrecking your mood and how to stop making them – Sheri Jacobson
Critical Thinking And Academic Research: Assumptions – William F. Ekstrom Library
Critical thinking – Skills You Need