Asking The Right Questions: 6 Steps to Unraveling Assumptions

Asking The Right Questions: 6 Steps to Unravelling Assumptions

I’ve written previously about how assumptions can ruin your career, but I realize that it’s important to know how to handle squashing your assumptions too. It’s not a very difficult process, but it does require knowing how to do it and plenty of practice. This post is dedicated to giving you the framework to get started, and it’s then up to you to put it into practice as much as possible.

If you never got a chance to read the previous post, let me recap by saying assumptions exist to be questioned. Unfortunately, we tend to take our assumptions to be absolute truth, and make decisions based on them. What you have to remember is that assumptions hide the real problems. Without questioning them, you’re likely going to waste your time focusing on things that won’t get you to where you want to be.

The 6 Steps to Unraveling Assumptions and Being a More Effective Decision Maker

  1. Identify your assumption
  2. Verify any facts mixed with it
  3. Question why you made it
  4. Invalidate it with counter assumptions
  5. Reset your conclusions
  6. Unravel the real issue with proper questioning

I’m going to take a different approach to explaining each of these concepts. Let’s dig into a real life scenario between a husband and wife, something you can most likely relate to. It’s a fun way to see how these steps materialize in the real world and hopefully will get you thinking about how you can use them at home and at work.

Unraveling Assumptions: The Story of Tyrese’s Failed Dinner

Tyrese didn’t understand why his wife Sally didn’t like the food he cooked for dinner. She ate her entire meal without even saying that it was good. She simply gave a generic “thanks for cooking tonight,” and nothing else. He spent an hour cooking when he could have just ordered in. He was tired too, and Sally’s ingratitude ruined the night for him. This was the last time he was going to try to make dinner.

That escalated quickly, and unchecked, the night is going to be explosive. Without questioning his assumptions, Tyrese is most likely going to end up with a huge fight on his hands, and there’s little chance he’ll win. Why? Because arguments based on assumptions rarely hold water when scrutinized. That’s why us men tend to lose fights with our wives so often (haha). Jokes aside, let’s get into it by applying the 6 steps for unraveling assumptions to this situation and help Tyrese out.

1: Identifying Tyrese’s Assumptions

Sally didn’t like the food

Sally is unappreciative

Tyrese started with an assumption that Sally didn’t like the food. This ended up escalating to Sally being unappreciative. As you can imagine, this could continue to snowball into a nightmare. Assumptions breed more assumptions and if not properly clipped at the source, you’ll end up with a tangled web of problems. What’s important to do here is identify the source assumption from the auxiliary ones. This will save you a lot of time, because if you invalidate the source, all the rest will simply vanish.

2: Verifying The Facts (what really happened)

Sally didn’t say the food was good

Sally said thanks for cooking tonight

The only real facts we have in this scenario is that Sally didn’t give a complement on the food and that she thanked Tyrese for cooking. For Tyrese, he had an expectation that she would have said more if she liked the food, but she didn’t, so he felt unappreciated.

It’s difficult at this stage to let go of the assumptions but the purpose right now is just verifying the facts. Treat these facts like precious babies, you need to protect them from the assumptions until they’re ready to stand up on their own.

3: Question Why Tyrese Made The Assumptions

When you’re upset about something, this step is going to be the hardest, because having self-reflection at a time like this is difficult. You have to remember, however, that many of the assumptions that we make are for the purpose of validating our emotions. That’s why they’re so difficult to let go of.

What Tyrese needs to do is figure out the vulnerability he’s feeling because it is driving his assumption. It could be as simple as him not knowing if the food is actually good. In this case, he just wants validation that he did a good job. Maybe he feels like he went above and beyond and just wants some praise. There’s a base level need that wasn’t fulfilled and now his assumptions are trying to reconcile with that.

Questioning why assumptions exist is one of the most important steps, because it can give you deep insight into a problem. At work, it can uncover a systemic issue such as an unclear career ladder or lack of organizational transparency.

4: Invalidating with More Assumptions

This might seem counter initiative, but it’s a good way to see if your assumption holds up or not. Counter-assumptions are simply the opposite of what you’re thinking or an assumption that leads to a conclusion you’re not trying to reach. They can be as ridiculous as you want them to be, because they’ll go in the garbage soon enough.

Some counter assumptions for Tyrese’s situation might be:

  • Sally loves the food so much she’s speechless
  • She’s mad at me and is purposely not thanking me
  • Maybe she’s having an affair and feels guilty
  • Or maybe she thinks I’m having an affair and is depressed

These are really silly but that’s the point. If you can laugh at some of your counter-assumptions, then it’ll allow you to relax about your original ones. It’s a simply way to help you take a step back and realize how flimsy your assumptions really are.

5: Reset Your Conclusions

The assumptions you make lead you to false conclusions. For Tyrese, his conclusion was that Sally was unappreciative and that he wasn’t going to cook dinner anymore. If you make conclusions based on assumptions, you’re always going to make bad decisions.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to reset your conclusions. In order for you to make sound decision-making, you need to be able to walk back, no matter how far you’ve gotten. I’ve personally seen people ruining relationships and careers because they weren’t willing to reset the decisions they made based on faulty assumptions. I know sometimes it’s hard to do, because you may have invested a lot of resolve into cementing your conclusion, but it’s just not worth holding on to. Your future self will thank you, I can pretty much guarantee that.

6: Unraveling the Issue with Questioning

Forming the right question can be tricky. Getting something positive from all your work so far is riding on it though. That’s why this part is so essential and it’s worth spending some time crafting your response.

For Tyrese, he needs to go back to Sally and ask a simple question: “Is everything alright?” If he tailors his question to be as basic as possible, he minimized the risk of guiding sally towards one of his false assumptions.

What Tyrese should so is ask a bad question like: “I see you don’t like my food, what’s wrong with it?” or “Why don’t you appreciate the meal I made you?” These accusatory questions will lead to disaster, and must be avoided.

By starting off with a neutral question, you allow for the person to answer as honestly as possible. Avoiding leading questions makes sure you don’t steer the conversation in the wrong direction. You reset your conclusion in the previous step for a reason. Your conclusion was wrong, so make sure you don’t ask questions to purposely end up with the same one.

The Last Part: Don’t Act on Assumptions

We’ve already established that acting on assumptions is a bad idea. Now imagine what might happen next in Tyrese’s situation. He’s pissed off and Sally hasn’t the clue what’s going on. I used to love the Choose Your Own Adventure books, so I’ll pay homage to them with two options, Response A or B:

Response A: Tyrese’s Bad Decision Making

Tyrese spends the remainder of the evening brooding until he finally let’s Sally have it. “Why are you being so rude tonight?” he begins, throwing accusations bred by assumptions. “You don’t appreciate any of the things I do for you!” he insists, as his conclusions have ballooned out of control. “If you don’t like my food then fine, I won’t try anymore, because it’s just not worth it!”

Boom. That felt good. Tyrese is finally feeling satisfied that he told Sally what’s on his mind. The problem is, he’s going to lose. There’s no way out for him and in the end, he’ll either find himself apologizing to Sally, or going to be sleeping alone for the night. Her natural response will be one of defense, and then she’ll begin to tear apart all the assumptions that Tyrese made. He’ll be left a whimpering puppy begging for forgiveness.

Response B: Tyrese Good Decision Making

Imagine another scenario, where Tyrese follows what you’ve just learned and decides to put aside his assumptions. He opens up by asking great questions to Sally, to figure out what’s going on.

Tyrese decides he’s going to suck it up and ask Sally what’s going on. Maybe she’s stressed today, maybe she’s upset. He has no idea, but he’d like to know why she isn’t complementing the meal he cooked. “Honey, is everything alright?” he asks, knowing that if he leaves the question open she might take the bait. To his disappointment, she doesn’t. She says everything is fine, but he doesn’t let that deter him. “Well, you’re usually so happy when I cook, so I was wondering what’s on your mind.”  Sally bites, and opens up about how she thinks she’s going to be laid off…

Choose Your Own Adventure

You’ve now learned that assumptions can be dangerous and should be questioned. You’ve also learned how to properly take steps to put them into perspective. It’ll take time for you to make this a regular part of your thought process, but it won’t be hard. The next time you’re faced with a situation that you’re unhappy with, go through this list and make sure you’re taking the right approach.

If you’ve come to strong conclusions that leave you feeling negative, make sure to re-evaluate them too. This applies to things at home and at work. Most of the tension we feel is being exasperated by assumptions, that’s why it’s never too late to put them under the microscope. You’ll begin to see things a lot clearer and show yourself to be a decision maker that people trust and rely on.


Credit: Feature image by Freepik

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