What are Assumptions?

On a daily basis we all make assumptions. Some are conscious however many of them are unconscious. Those that are unconscious have become habitual ways of thinking.

Assumptions serve a useful purpose

They provide a short cut in our thinking. For example, I assume that health professionals care about my health when I go to see them. I don’t need to think this through, although with any new practitioner I may be wary and check out my assumptions in advance by seeking feedback from others. On the other hand if I am walking down a city street at night and I hear footsteps coming up behind me I assume that I could be in danger and start to react.

What happens when we make assumptions?

We often receive self-confirming feedback. Perhaps not always in the case of the danger at night, thank goodness. However, if we assume that someone is going to act towards us in a positive way then we show this in our attitude towards them and it normally gets reciprocated. Equally if we assume someone will be hostile, our actions show this and this is also often reciprocated.

The Ladder of Inference

I have written previously about assumptions and referred to a framework called a Ladder of Inference first proposed by  Chris Argyris. 

As you can see from this, we observe something, select data from this observation, add meaning to this date and then make assumptions, which in time lead to beliefs and eventually turn into actions

Assumptions over time become beliefs

As a result turn into ‘facts’. In organisations this is how group think and mind sets develop. Sometimes it needs a new person to come in and challenge these assumptions in order to break out of set ways of thinking.

Challenging our Assumptions

There are techniques  that can help challenge assumptions

The first way in which you can challenge assumptions is to work backwards down the ladder of Inference.  Check out how your beliefs and assumptions were formed. Did you ignore any other relevant data?

In Creative Problem Solving (CPS),  it is crucial that assumptions are challenged in order to address the core problem and find effective solutions.

An exercise I have found very useful in working to challenge assumptions in any particular situation is one developed by Peter Senge, based upon the ladder of inference, called The Left Hand Column.

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns. On the right hand side you state the facts, or what was said in a situation. Against each of these points on the left hand side you write what you were thinking.

As this shows the progression of thoughts and the development of assumptions in any situation, it can throw light on our perception of a situation. It can be very helpful in surfacing assumptions in any situation and can lead to an analysis of why challenging situations have arisen.

Another way to challenge assumptions

Ensure that there is diversity in any team and to invite in people from different backgrounds. In CPS terms this is known as ‘fresh eye’, as people from different backgrounds will most likely have different perceptions to any problem.

Do you have any examples of ways in which assumptions are challenged?


Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. which covers the process of CPS and techniques that can help challenge assumptions.