"Untested assumptions and lazy habits of thought can be shown up, once put in a spotlight of a different hue."
- Julian Baggini, editor & co-founder of The Philosopher's Magazine
B: Hi, I’m Barbara Saxberg
D: And I’m Dan Oldfield
B: And this is the Occasional Podcast from Syzygy Learning & Facilitation.
D: TV actor Henry Winkler once said that assumptions are the termites of relationships. They certainly have the potential to undermine a foundation if not destroy it altogether.
B: What happens when we assume we know what’s going on? When we connect a bunch of dots and create a fascinating but potentially false picture? Add two and two and get five? Maybe - nothing much. Or maybe we end a friendship, damage a relationship or take action that does more harm than good.
D: In this episode, we’ll put assumptions under the microscope along with their cousins, inference and motivations. We’re not calling the exterminators, just checking the damage and taking preventative action.
B: Every hour of every day, we are bombarded with data, with information, with myriad bits and pieces that we sift through. Discard some, sort what’s left to help us make sense of our world. Efficient operation means that along the way, we make assumptions that eventually lead us to conclusions. We make these assumptions based on our beliefs, our experience, our upbringing and our culture.
Many of our assumptions are pretty reliable. For example we can be confident assuming the sun will rise tomorrow in the east, based on considerable past experience.
But making assumptions or inferring motive can be a dangerous practice when it comes to making sense of other people, why they do certain things or behave in a particular way.
D: It’s part of human nature to try and draw conclusions in our dealings with other people. Newton tells us, in the physical world at least, every action has a reaction. The same can generally be said about communication between people.
A little while ago, we read a story about a man who was waiting for a woman to respond a series of emails. His one-way dialogue went something like this:
Beep: “Give me a call as soon as you can.”
Beep: “Haven’t heard from you yet. Hope everything’s ok.”
Beep: “It’s been almost a week and I’m really getting concerned. Please call.”
Beep: “Ok, clearly you’ve decided to ignore me.”
Beep: “It’s been three weeks now. What a sad and pathetic way to break up with someone. I thought you were better than that.”
Beep: “I don’t know what I ever saw in you. You’re a nasty miserable person and I’m glad you’re gone. I’ve boxed up your stuff and sent it to your mother’s. Have a nice life.”
B: Finally, he got a response.
Beep: “I just read your emails. I was out of the country with no internet access. My grandmother died and I had to leave suddenly.”
B: Needless to say, once the woman read the series of emails and the assumptions within, the relationship was over.
It’s easy to say, of course, don’t make assumptions without checking their validity. If only it were that simple. Even when you’re aware of the dangers of inferring a motive behind somone’s actions or words, you can still get into trouble.
D: Yes, not long ago, we were out doing some shopping at our local mall. We were in the car, ready to make a turn out of the parking lot into the traffic. A truck came barreling down the road toward us and tried to make a quick turn into the lot. The driver lost control and slammed into the side of our car. Both vehicles were a write off and we were lucky no one was hurt. But we were pretty shaken up. And we were stunned to see the driver of the truck staggering around, slurring his speech and yelling at people.
We were furious. Here it was two o’clock in the afternoon and this “drunk” had just about killed us. By the time the police and ambulance arrived, we loaded were for bear. As far as we were concerned this idiot should be arrested on the spot and charged with impaired and dangerous driving.
B: Well it turned out the man’s behaviour was symptomatic of someone in diabetic shock, a condition that could put him in a coma or kill him. So now how do you think we felt? Our anger turned to concern coupled with a bit of shame that we’d jumped so quickly to conclusions.
This idea of taking someone’s words or actions, interpreting them and making a conclusion is referred to as the ladder of inference. The ladder of inference works like this:
First you observe data. From that data, you select pieces of it. You add meaning to the pieces you’ve selected. You make assumptions based on the meaning. You draw conclusions from your assumptions. You turn your conclusions into beliefs. And you take action based on those beliefs.
In the case of the diabetic driver, we climbed the ladder pretty quickly without even realizing it.
D: Sometimes climbing the ladder can lead you a lot of unnecessary worry.
You’ll recall, Barb, the time we were facilitating a workshop on working with conflict which, ironically, included a session on the ladder of inference. We both noticed one of the participants almost immediately, a woman wearing dark glasses who chose to sit near the back of the room and who kept making strange faces throughout the morning session. At lunch, you and I talked about what we’d seen and speculated about what was going on. We both concluded she didn’t seem happy to be there, wasn’t getting much out of the workshop and appeared to be rejecting most of the discussion.
B: And we were wrong. When we got a chance to talk to her at the end of the day, she told us how much she was enjoying the experience, how much she was learning and how she was looking forward to applying what she’d learned. It turned out she was from a small community, she was really shy and she wasn’t sure she’d be accepted by the rest of the group. Once again, we’d climbed the ladder.
D: So we live in a world of self-generating beliefs. Our ability to overcome the ladder of inference is challenged by our feelings that: what we believe is the truth. It’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s based on real data.
But does this mean you should refrain from making any assumptions about what’s going on around you? Not at all. And you’d probably drive yourself crazy even if you tried.
There are a few things you can do though to make sure your conclusions are based on valid assumptions.
B: The first step is to become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning. Take some time to reflect on your conclusions. Are there other considerations you may have missed? What evidence backs up your assumptions? How do you know? Is it possible you have a bias based on some previous experience?
D: Then try testing your assumptions. You can share your thinking and reasoning with others and seek their opinions. And you can ask questions like, “Here’s what I’m thinking. Is it true? What do you think? And how did you get there?”
B: Perhaps the most difficult part of challenging our own assumptions is being open and flexible enough to recognize when our reasoning has been faulty. To admit when our bias is showing. Or when we’ve simply leapt to a conclusion before giving it sufficient thought.
Jumping to conclusions isn’t a form of exercise. But it might require you to put out a lot of extra effort when you need to do the hard work of making amends or repairing a relationship.
D: That’s it for this episode. Now what about you? Do you have a story about an assumption that led you astray? A climb up the ladder of inference? Let us know. We’re always curious to hear your stories.
B: And of course, we hope you’ll share your thoughts about any other aspect of our work. Challenge our assumptions. Use the comment section of this page. Or connect through the contact information on the website. We’d love to hear from you.
D: This has been the Occasional Podcast, from Syzygy Learning & Facilitation.
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