A Coaching Power Tool created by Tamara Ocean
(Executive & Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Begin by challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.”
We all make assumptions. Sometimes our assumptions are correct, and sometimes they’re not. Being aware of our assumptions can help us decide when it makes sense to question them, and keep us from making false assumptions that impact our life in a disempowering way.
Most of us have caught ourselves making a false assumption about something or someone. Have you ever pictured someone a certain way based on their voice, and then met them in person and been surprised that their appearance was completely different than the image in your mind? Or have you assumed that the dessert you ordered is going to taste as good as it looks, only to be disappointed? I once stood outside of a coffeehouse on Main Street in Seal Beach waiting to meet someone, who assumed that I meant the coffeehouse by the same name on Main Street in another city (Huntington Beach). It was a simple miscommunication, but our assumptions put us 10 miles apart and delayed our meeting by almost an hour.
So is assuming a bad thing? Not always. Assuming is defined as “taking something for granted or without proof.” Assuming is natural and can be helpful. We often make assumptions when we’re planning. For example, if you know traffic tends to be heaviest during “rush hour”, it’s probably safe to assume that you should plan for extra drive time for a job interview that requires you to travel during certain times of the day. Assumptions may be based on relevant experience, especially in a relationship. If you trust your significant other, then you assume that he (or she) is going to be faithful when you’re apart. You don’t demand proof of his fidelity every time you’re back together, or your relationship would likely deteriorate. In other words, assuming the best about someone can contribute to the health of a relationship. Although your assumptions may not be true, it would be exhausting to constantly question and seek “evidence” to support your assumptions about each situation or person we encounter.
The risk in assuming is not being aware of our assumptions, and allowing them to drive our behavior in a way that doesn’t serve us. Assumptions are often tied into one or more of our underlying beliefs, which can float just under the surface of our awareness and obscure the way that we view ourselves or others. To clarify, the underlying belief is not the assumption, but it informs the assumptions we make, often without our realizing it. For example, if you have an underlying belief that “money is not important to spiritual people”, then you might assume that it would be materialistic to charge (or to charge “too much”) for providing support services to others (e.g. coaching, healing, teaching). You might also assume that others have the same belief, and would not view you as a spiritual person if you requested to be paid for your services. This could create tangible financial impacts for you, and influence your ability or motivation to serve others in the way that you desire.
So what can we do when we become aware that we’re making assumptions that are disempowering us? How can we find out if our assumptions are true? And what do we do once we determine this?
Verifying is one way that we may examine our assumptions; it enables us to make decisions with a better understanding of why we are choosing what we choose. One definition of verifying is “to prove the truth of, as by evidence or testimony; confirm; substantiate”. Another related definition is “to ascertain the truth or correctness of, as by examination, research, or comparison”.
If upon examination, our assumption is confirmed, we can make an informed decision about what action to take. However, if we ascertain that our assumption is not true, it can empower us, give us the freedom to choose differently, and create new possibilities.
There are many aspects of your life about which you make assumptions. A few of the more disempowering types of these are listed below.
What we “should” do. Based on underlying beliefs about who you “should” be or what you “have to” do, it is easy to base your actions on the idea that you “should” be doing something differently than what you are actually doing. You may state these assumptions matter-of-factly, not considering that you have a choice to do something else. Have you ever heard yourself or others making statements like the ones below?
I should exercise 4 times a week.
I should not be making a career change at my age.
I have to wait until my children have moved out to start dating again.
I should be happy with what I have instead of wanting something that I don’t
While you may choose to do any of these things (exercise regularly, wait to start dating again), it’s good to be aware of the language you are using to express this choice. It’s about “making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip.” (A. Wachter, 2013). To verify the “truth” of your assumption, simply ask why. Why should you exercise 4 times a week? Why is it not OK to make a career change?
What others think we should do. Do your children expect you to make every soccer game? Or is that a commitment you’ve made because it makes you feel like a good parent? Does your boss expect you to be in the office from 8 AM to 5 PM every day? Or is it possible that he would allow you to telework at least one day each week? Does your spouse expect you to fix a home-cooked meal every night? Or would he welcome the opportunity to eat out a couple times each week and spend time with you?
How often do you assume that you know what someone else expects from you without verifying whether the expectation is really theirs or is an expectation you’ve set for yourself? Cindy hosted all of the holiday celebrations for her family for over ten years. It left her exhausted, and she would often complain that it wasn’t fair that everyone expected her to make all of the plans and do all of the work. If she’d taken the time to ask her family whether they really expected her to continue hosting every family get together, she would’ve found out that both her sister and sister-in-law wanted a chance to host some of the celebrations. Eventually, Cindy had an emotional breakdown in front of her family, and discovered that no one had really expected her to take this responsibility, but they’d been afraid to say anything to her for fear of hurting her feelings. They’d assumed that she’d feel like they were taking something from her if they offered to step in and take a turn.
In another example, Anita worked full time but still cooked dinner for her husband every night because she believed he expected her to. When she finally had the courage to ask what he did want from her – what was really important to him – he shared a few other things that were far more important than her cooking dinner each night, including that he wanted her to take care of herself. He did admit that he preferred a meal at home rather than going out at the end of the workday, but he didn’t care whether or not she cooked it. Anita hired a cook to come in a couple nights each week while she went to the gym, and she and her husband enjoyed a meal together when she got home feeling energized from her workout.
Whether it is a personal or professional relationship, it’s helpful to really understand what others expect of you. Knowing what the other person wants helps you to build trust in the relationship. Recognizing when you are creating illusory expectations can take pressure off you and allow you to more genuinely give of yourself.
What others think. Your underlying beliefs may also inform your assumptions about what other people think of you. Often these assumptions reflect your own fears or judgments rather than those of others. Observe your thoughts or the things that you say. Do you hear statements like any of the ones below?
My parents will think I’m irresponsible if I pursue a job in acting.
My friends will think I’m crazy if I don’t marry this guy; he’s handsome, successful and everyone loves him.
My wife won’t respect me if I tell her that I’m scared to become a father.
It’s worth noticing that unless you care about the other person, you probably don’t even care what they think about you. If you care about them, then you often try to see the good in them and give them your support. So why are you so quick to assume that they will see the worst in you? Isn’t it possible, even likely, that they will see the best in you and encourage us to act according to your own values?
And what if you’re right? What if your choice will disappoint someone? What if they will think you’re stupid, or boring, or too loud, or overemotional? Then it’s up to you to decide whether their perception of you is more or less important than choosing to move forward in a way that feels authentic. In his article How to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think, Mark Tyrrell advises that “To be ’emotionally intelligent’, we need to have some awareness and consideration of what others may be thinking of us whilst not caring so much that it prevents us being effective and original human beings.”
We may also ‘disempower’ ourselves by falsely assuming that others see us in a specific positive way without verifying it to be true. Although it is good to have a positive self-image, if you have mistaken ideas about how others perceive you, it can create obstacles that can be difficult to get around – different action is required to climb over a wall than to swim across a deep river. False assumptions occur when you don’t take the time to verify why others respond to you the way that they do, as in the situations described below.
Assumption: “The client doesn’t want to work with me because my fees are too high.”
Truth: The information you provided to them about your services was confusing to them and left them unsure of the value you provide.
Assumption: “I never get the promotion at work because I’m bad at networking and just don’t know the right people.”
Truth: Your reputation at work is that you’re difficult to work for, so others don’t want to hire you for a position that requires managing people.
Assumption: “A lot of men never go on a second date with me because they’re intimidated by my success and confidence.”
Truth: You never stop talking long enough to give them a chance to say anything, so they don’t enjoy the conversation or feel listened to.
When you find yourself in a situation with other people that feels “stuck” in some way, it can be helpful to verify your assumptions are true. Most often, this requires you to have the courage to ask for direct feedback from others. Asking what others think of you, and having the courage to listen, can help you identify “blind spots” in your behavior that may be keeping you from moving forward.
Jim is a client who is working with a corporate coach to prepare for an upcoming promotion opportunity. His boss has referred him to a coach to help him refine his leadership skills. Jim is late to his first couple of sessions, and seems distracted and fidgety. The coach asks him what he would like to see as an outcome of the coaching process. He answers unenthusiastically, “I don’t really know. I guess I should be figuring out what skills I need for the new position so you can coach me on them.”
This prompts the coach to begin asking questions about the new position, and why Jim would like to be promoted. By the third session, Jim finally confesses that he doesn’t want to apply for the promotion, but his boss expects him to; and he really should since it’s the next logical step in his career. Besides, his wife will be really excited about the raise since they’ve wanted to do some remodeling on the house; she would be really disappointed if she found out he didn’t even apply.
Besides exploring the reasons that Jim doesn’t want to apply for the promotion, his coach takes the opportunity to explore some of Jim’s assumptions. They discuss why Jim feels he “should” apply for the promotion. The coach also invites Jim to talk to his boss about her expectations of him, and to discuss the opportunity with his wife. His self-examination helps him to verify that he does not want the additional responsibility that would come with the new role, and that he would prefer to spend more time with his children rather than more time at the office. Verifying his assumptions about others allows him to learn that his boss really appreciates Jim’s work in his current role, and would love for him to continue, but thought that Jim would be upset if he wasn’t given this promotion opportunity. He also learns that his wife really wants to see him happy since it affects how he relates to her and his children at home. She also tells him that it’s hard on her career and work/life balance when he works too much overtime, and that the demands of a new position for him might make it difficult for her to rely on him for the same level of support that he currently provides as they juggle their careers and family commitments.
Besides deciding not to apply for a promotion, the discussion with his boss also yields another unexpected insight for Jim. He learns that he could be more effective in his current position by being a bit more organized in how he conducts project meetings, so he shifts the focus with his coach and works to enhance his meeting planning and facilitation skills.
In the case study above, we see how coaching helped Jim to challenge his own assumptions by verifying the truth related to his own feelings and the perceptions of others. It takes keen observation and active listening to see that our clients may be pursuing goals because they think they “should” or they assume others expect them to. Jim’s coach could have continued to help him set goals related to the leadership skills required for the promotion, and Jim might have tried to learn new skills and applied for a role that he wasn’t interested in. He might have been successful in getting the promotion, and his coach might have assumed that this was the optimal outcome. However, by taking the time to verify what was actually important to the client, the coach was better able to serve the client’s higher purpose and align his actions with his values.
As we work with clients, it is helpful to listen for words like “I should” or “I have to”. Exploring the truth of those statements may help us uncover some of the client’s underlying beliefs and determine if they are serving the client or not. We can also support the client’s ability to verify by challenging our own assumptions. Taking the time to clearly establish client expectations, fully understand desired outcomes, and ask for feedback models this behavior for our clients. If we assume that every client wants us to hold them accountable to the same degree or expects us to use certain coaching methods or tools, we miss out on the opportunity to meet the client where they are at and support them in a way that brings out the best in them.
The ICF Core Competencies that are applied when we help the client to verify are Coaching Presence, Active Listening, and Powerful Questioning. We must be able to be present during the coaching process and to choose in the moment what is most effective, which requires us to be intuitive and to really listen to what the client is saying or not saying. We can support our clients by focusing on their desired outcome, and not imposing our own agenda or assumptions. We can help our clients gain insight by asking questions that challenge them to examine disempowering assumptions, and invite them to verify the truth so that they can take actions with more confidence and clarity.
- When have you assumed something that turned out not to be true?
- How can you become aware of assumptions that are disempowering? What do you do when you become aware of them?
- Why is it important to verify the truth rather than relying on your assumptions?
- What questions can you ask to verify that you understand what your client is saying?
- How can becoming aware of assumptions help your client to uncover their underlying beliefs?
- As a coach, what questions can you ask your client to shift their perspective from assuming to verifying? Why is this important?
Dictionary.com, LLC. http://dictionary.reference.com/
International Coach Federation. “Core Competencies.”
Tyrrell, Mark. “How To Stop Worrying What Other People Think.” Uncommon Help. 01 December 2009. http://www.uncommonhelp.me/articles/how-to-stop-worrying-what-other-people-think/
Wachter, Andrea. “Stop ‘Shoulding’ On Yourself.” Huffington Post. 08 March 2013.