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Coaching to Flourish #090: Unraveling Assumptions: A Coaching Deep-Dive

September 27, 2023 by Coach Training EDU

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Be Curious!

Raj Anderson and guest experts answer your coaching questions each week!

In Coaching to Flourish #090, host Raj Anderson and guest John Andrew Williams unravel the powerful impact of assumptions on our perspectives, actions, and beliefs. Through exploring the importance of remaining curious, choosing empowering assumptions, and the transformative potential of adopting a growth mindset, this episode offers many insights for coaches and clients alike!

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Raj Anderson: We are live. Welcome everyone to the Coaching to Flourish podcast. And I am your host, Raj Anderson, Executive Life Coach and Coach Assessor. And I am here with John Andrew Williams, who is the founder of Coach Training EDU. We've got a great topic to explore today, but before we get into all of that, how are you, John?

John Andrew Williams: Good. Yeah. I'm feeling good today. It’s sunny, it's beautiful, weather's lovely. And just super productive week, it's been good. How are you? How are things?

Raj Anderson: Really good. Really good. I am really excited about this topic today, but I'm also excited about bit of the turn in the weather here in Florida, you know how hot and humid it gets. And it's still hot and humid, but I can feel a bit of difference in the air. So I'm excited. I really am.

John Andrew Williams: Yeah. I mean, we will be in Florida, so a couple of the team, we're going to be down in Orlando at the national association for college advising in the first week in October. So we might put together a Coach Training EDU, Academic Life Coaching meetup. We'll see if we can get something on the calendar, but yeah, we'll experience October in Florida.

Raj Anderson: Yeah, you'll be in my neck of the woods. We'll be chatting about that. But I'm going to shift us into the topic for today, because as I said, I'm really excited to talk to you about this, John. We're going to be focusing on assumptions, and touching on beliefs and perspectives. I know that you have a lot to share with us on this. Yet the first question I wanted to ask straight up is, What is an assumption?

John Andrew Williams: Right! And I happen to have a slide presentation prepared, and it talks about definitions. So let's go to it right away. Can everyone see my screen?

Raj Anderson: I can see it John.

John Andrew Williams: Yay. All right. So, for those of you listening, or not watching a screen, an assumption, at its very simplest idea, is an untested idea. It's something that you literally assume in the sense of, ‘bi,’ it comes from a Latin word sumo, which means to purchase something. So an assumption is something that you pick up. You say, yes, this is worth having. But from a coaching standpoint, I look at it as an untested idea. It's something that, you have this idea of what it is, but you don't necessarily have it tested. Whereas a belief is an assumption that you have accepted as truth. May or may not be tested, but from a coaching standpoint, it is a tested idea.

And then you get to a perspective - and I like thinking of a perspective from two different standpoints. One of them is it's a lens, and the other is a context. So the lens is the way in which you're viewing something, and the context is the stage on which it is viewed. And a perspective carries both of those things. And it affects the interpretation of the evidence that happens. So a perspective will have an impact on the way that we're looking at something.

And the idea of, what is reality versus truth, versus going into the semantics of what is the fundamental nature of things. I don't want to go too far into that. The idea though that I really like is this idea of truth. That truth is a story or a narrative that aligns with the facts, and also has a story that is congruent with reality. That's as close as I'll get to touching into those spaces before going super semantic, really philosophical. From a pure pragmatic - this is the theory of coaching, and this is how we implement coaching - I like a story interpretation of the facts, that narrative, that's, that's what equals truth.

And so perspective affects the way that we interpret things, and that becomes our truth. And we take action from this perspective, leads to certain kinds of evidence. And I have examples to go into this, but that's a pretty broad overview of the definitions of the ideas we're working with.

Raj Anderson: Thank you, John. I'm curious, from your experience as a trainer and as a coach, do you find human beings make a lot of assumptions?

John Andrew Williams: Yes, all the time. I mean, we are assumption machines. This is what our brains do. If you look at Kahneman's system, you know, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ the idea of system one versus system two thinking - our system one, that’s it’s job, is to make wildly quick assumptions all the time. It's what human beings do. One of the big benefits of coaching is that you're having another human being listen to you very deeply, and ask you questions that knock you out of your normal thinking, feeling patterns, that help you question assumptions that you do not even know that you had.

Can you hear the birds, or is my mic?

Raj Anderson: I can and they sound lovely.

John Andrew Williams: Yay. Because usually sometimes they can't. I think it's a scrub Jay and a blue Jay communicating with each other.

Raj Anderson: Wow. They do, they sound lovely, John. I can hear them.

John Andrew Williams: They're fun. I wonder what they're saying. You know, wonder what we could assume what they're saying to each other.

And then the idea of, okay. So when we're training people to use the assumptions, or use perspectives, address limiting beliefs, I don't think it's that useful to try to accurately get these definitions in real time while you're coaching. How I use this in coaching is more around an awareness of, okay, this sounds like it might be an assumption, a belief, or perspective. That's enough of a starting point for you to get curious and ask questions based on it. That's the practical use of even having these definitions.

And then you can even get granular in the sense of, all right. So let's say someone has a certain perspective on something. You can go backwards in the chart and look at the question of - and I'll go to the chart, it's a flow. You can go backwards and say, okay, so what assumptions lead to this perspective? Or if you were to adopt this perspective, what actions lead from the perspective? It's useful to think of the chart, and think of these things all being linked together here. Let me share my screen really quick, I know I'm jumping slightly ahead on this.

So the idea here is, an assumption leads to a perspective, leads to an action, and leads to evidence. When we're doing this coaching exercise with clients I usually do a pair, where one assumption might be a positive assumption, the other one might be seemingly a negative assumption. And then you can ask clients to go, based on this assumption, what perspective wants to happen? Based on this perspective, what action naturally wants to happen? If you follow through in these actions, what's most likely going to happen as your evidence, and how does that feed into the original assumption?

The idea here is that human beings, we really, really like to have our assumptions to be proven true, even if those assumptions go counter to our highest good, or what we really, really want. So a lot of coaching helps people clear out those assumptions - address them directly, look at them directly, reorganize them, and then create action steps that are truly empowering, in align with your highest goals. That's what this whole concept is about.

Raj Anderson: Why do you think that is, John? Why do we want our assumptions to be proven to be true, or hold on to them?

John Andrew Williams: That's a big question Raj. These are lots of different reasons for different things. Like, when someone actively wants someone else to fail quickly at something, so that they move on to do something else.

So a lot of times someone might think, someone very close to you in your life might think, ‘Well, why are they starting a coaching career? I don't know anything about this coaching. It sounds risky. I am going to assume that's going to fail.’ And so they take a perspective of, I think this is going to fail. The actions might be withholding resources, like fully supporting and looking for evidence of, yes, see, they're stressed out. This person isn't able to set up their coaching practice, or they're not getting hired as a coach. And then they get their assumption to be proven to be true, which makes them feel better about themselves and the narrative that they have, that they can more accurately predict the future, which is what human beings love to be able to do.

And the challenge then is what happens when it's proven to be false. What happens when the person you think that did not establish a coaching career, what happens when they really do? Then all of a sudden you, the original person has to, that original assumption has to be scrambled. There's a rewriting of it where it's like, oh, they just got lucky, or they just worked really hard, or you know, I knew they'd pull it out, but I had my doubts. You can feel people, once the truth is known, the assumptions often get rewritten really quickly, all in the service of protecting those original narratives. It's a thing.

And you can see it real time in coaching sessions. You can see it real time in the relationships you have with people. Once you're able to see how these things feed into each other, it's not this monolithic block of action, evidence, perspective, assumption. You can start to divide it and ask yourself, which of these four things do you need to focus on? Which of these four things can you see other people, in where they might not even see it themselves? And as a coach, you can start to ask very specific questions about each of these aspects of action, evidence, perspectives and assumptions.

Raj Anderson: And John, you showed us a really great tool there. What helps a coach in a session to spot an assumption, or that the coachee or client is making an assumption?

John Andrew Williams: It's a great question. I think, whenever it feels like a client, let's say they might be stuck in a fixed or growth mindset for example. Let's use this one. And I actually have this example queued up here in the slide deck. Where you have this idea of - this is an assumption chart, using growth mindset in one, versus fixed mindset in the other. And the assumption here in growth mindset is that if you put in effort and hard work, you'll incrementally become better. It's, you know, ‘effort is the thing that matters most’ is the perspective of growth mindset. From a fixed mindset, the assumption is that we're all born with a fixed amount of talent, and the perspective is I need to prove that talent, by the outside evidence.

So these two perspectives, assumptions and perspectives, lead to vastly different kinds of action, even though that action might look very similar on the surface. Over time it does make a big difference. The growth mindset action that most likely comes out of this assumption and perspective is trying to focus on building a habit of putting in practice and work sessions. Where you ask yourself, how can I create systems and habits that sustain my level of effort and work? That is a very growth mindset-ey kind of action step. What this most likely leads to is consistent practice, consistent effort, and evidence of incrementally getting better, which then goes in and feeds into that initial assumption. That's really useful to have in your back pocket.

So from a coaching standpoint, when you hear a client focusing, let's say on trying to win with as little effort as possible, you might want to break out the assumption chart and say, okay, let's look at this assumption. From a fixed mindset perspective, when you need to prove your talent, trying to win with as little effort as possible is the action step that makes sense if you're in a fixed mindset. You want to prove that you have as much talent, and you can prove you have the talent, if you just put in as little effort as possible and get the best grade or get the best outcome. A lot of traditional school teaches students to do this. You want to get your grade, get the best grade with as little effort as possible, so you have time for other things.

From this fixed mindset perspective, the outside evidence matters a lot, because it all feeds back into as a test of, do you have the innate talent or not in order to do these things? And so this is where you see parents and sporting events completely freaked out with their elementary or middle schoolers performance, because they are all in a fixed mindset, and they really want their child to prove that they have a talent consistently. And you can just feel the fear emanating from them, when it's their child's turn to do the thing.

But from a growth mindset, it doesn't matter. It literally does not matter. It's more, what matters from a growth mindset is this habit, this session. So when you're working with a client, it's an example, it's an opportunity. When you see something like this, to be able to diagram it, so that you can see so clearly how a growth mindset, the assumption of the narrative that we have for ourselves, that assumption definitely leads to a perspective, leads to different kind of action sets. It's a big deal to have this in real time in a coaching session.

Raj Anderson: It's a really great visual.

John Andrew Williams: I’m curious Raj, your thoughts on this so far? I know you've been asking, you've asked all the questions. How do you use the assumptions and this kind of thing in your coaching sessions?

Raj Anderson: I love the visual that you just shared, John, and it reminded me of how powerful that can be. I've used that chart before, and I was curious as I was thinking about it is, often when we look at that perspective in the chart as well, I will be curious about, how is that perspective serving you? Or, that perspective can be the limiting belief, can't it? What are your thoughts on that?

John Andrew Williams: Yeah, exactly. So then once a coach gets familiar with the chart, and feels their way around it intuitively, then you can look at limiting beliefs. They sort of have a, just a red flag or red blinky light, it feels very much like an incongruence. And a lot of these limiting beliefs are old perspectives. They're a bundle of like, old assumptions and perspectives, that maybe at some point in time were useful, but are simply no longer useful.

And a lot of what happens in a coaching session, when you look at a limiting belief flag, let's say the limiting belief is, ‘I am no good as a public speaker.’ Let's say that's a limiting belief. And so if you put that through the assumption chart, ‘I'm no good as a speaker,’ the perspective is, ‘I'm looking for all of the reasons why that's true.’ The actions, most likely not going to develop a regular speaking practice, or put practice sessions into that. And then the evidence will support that initial assumption - yeah, I'm not a very great speaker.

So what's the usefulness of this? The usefulness might be, all right, so maybe in the short term you accept this, and you put your time and energy into networking, maybe one on one if you want to build a career in coaching, or you want to talk to a supervisor or get hired or something. And you really focus in on becoming an amazing coach and forget all about speaking for the moment, you just accept that and move on and you come to peace with that. There might be a usefulness for it.

But it also might be useful to look at that and say, what if I am a great speaker, and adopt a growth mindset about it, and I give myself a year in practice and see where I land. I really want to be a good speaker. That might be a really useful perspective to adopt, and get you out of that space, get you out of that limiting belief space, whether you’re a good speaker, a bad speaker. It almost doesn't matter from a growth mindset. It's more of, how willing are you to put in the effort to become a great speaker? That's the question.

So from a limiting belief perspective it's usually, as a coach I explore, okay, what's the usefulness of this limiting belief? What's the opposite in terms of, the directional opposite? Explore that. And then you can also get the context opposite, if you change the context completely. For instance, going to a growth mindset, what matters? And then the question that becomes, are you willing to put in the work to make it work?

Raj Anderson: It's actually incredibly powerful tool, isn't it? It's mind blowing.

I know when I've done this myself or my coaches worked with me on this, the light bulbs that take place, for a start, as you said. There are assumptions that you don't know that you've had, or you catch and those limiting beliefs. But there is always such a shift of energy after this tool, isn't there? Because people feel so much more empowered, or that they can take charge or ownership of something that, they might have known a bit about, but they felt stuck. That's what excites me about this tool.

I have a question for you regarding assumptions for coaches. So occasionally when I'm assessing coaches, you know, I can hear coaches make an assumption about the coach or your client, or it can sound like they're leading.

And I actually had an experience myself where I was in a small group mentoring session, one of the coaches was coaching me, the other was listening in. And in some of the questions and feedback they gave afterwards, I could hear assumptions that they had made in who they think they know me to be. Which for me, as a person on the receiving end, felt a little bit frustrating. I didn't quite feel understood. Because there were assumptions about who we think you are, who we see that you could be, maybe there's some projections, personal perspectives, own map of the world. So how can coaches themselves avoid the assumptions pitfall when they are coaching someone?

John Andrew Williams: I know what you're talking about and I've heard it too, often - in the training, when you're assessing and being assessed. As a coach I feel like it's an opportunity. Because as a coach, you're listening, and then you're having to respond with a question, and there's definitely assumptions that a coach has to make to ask powerful questions. And from an assessor standpoint, people going through the training have to understand, we've been through this. Like, we've done thousands of hours of training, probably led thousands of hours of training at this point, but we've coached thousands of hours, we listened maybe to hundreds of hours of other people coach.

It is very easy to hear the assumptions that someone is making based on the questions they ask. Extremely easy. And I think one of the benefits of being coach trained is you have someone listening to you, and those assumptions that you have, that you don't even know you have, are going to come out when you try to coach. And it's a benefit. You want these assumptions to come out. You need these assumptions to come out, in order for you to look at them and to be able to redesign them.

And so from a deep, deep fundamental level, I think the people who are the most successful going through coach training are people who feel a certain security in themselves. To the point that they're willing to look at the assumptions that they might not even know they have, and are open to feedback when someone else, an assessor hears, ‘I hear you making this assumption in a question,’ and not get defensive about it, but to say, ‘Thank you. That's useful information that I can use to change.’

And so from a coach training perspective, a deep fundamental assumption that we make about humans is that human beings want to do the best. And human beings, when they are aware of things that they can do better, will easily make changes, or can easily make changes once they are aware of the assumptions that they're making. Because bringing it to consciousness, seeing it, making a different choice and letting it settle back down, that's the work of coach training. That's the work of coaching. This is the internal work. So this is, where I feel like in that space, when you are being assessed, when someone is listening to your coaching, give you feedback - please, whatever you can do, be open to those suggestions and assumptions. They will grow you. The assessors know what they're talking about. It's very easy to hear these assumptions. And you want that.

Raj Anderson: Absolutely, John. Thank you for that. And what I would add to that is remain curious. Because, some of us coach people that we know, or you might have a practice client who you've had an experience with, or you know, or you have a relationship with in a different capacity. I’ve had clients who I've worked with for years, sometimes go off, then they come back. And for me, it's a clean slate. Where every time I'm going into that coaching session - not that we're not making connections, yet people change and they grow.

And I think for me, when I was having that experience of being coached, and there were assumptions coming up in what the individual thought to be true about me - you know, so there was a question around, well, you're normally so calm. Or you know, this doesn't sound like this is true to who you are. I think staying in curiosity would help the coach to discover perhaps what shifted in me, or what has changed in me, or what has grown in me, versus who I used to be to who I am now. So I think curiosity and deep listening really helps combat assumptions. What do you think about that, John?

John Andrew Williams: Absolutely. Yes. And picking consciously empowering assumptions to have for your client. So in that instance it would be, the assumption is - the empowering positive assumption is, people change every day. Change can happen very quickly. So if you make the assumption that change can happen very quickly, what perspective does that put you in? Well, curiosity. What changed? If change can happen quickly, what change do you want to happen quickly? You can almost feel the empowerment come from the assumption. And your mind, that mind goes racing to look for evidence. Where is it true? Where in your life do you know change can happen very quickly? And then from that perspective, what action would you take?

You can flip it and say, change will never happen. You can almost feel the perspective that immediately puts, it puts everyone in. It will never change. There is an element of, let's say this assumption is useful. Where is it useful? Well, let's say there is, there are some things that really, truly will never change, then it's okay. How can I accept this and move on, and maybe move it back into the empowerment piece. But for the sake of this exercise, this mental test, you know, this thought exercise, you can almost feel the idea that change will never happen, there's a part of us that rebels against that and says no, it's not true.

What a coach can do is, we get in there and we ask questions. And if you knowingly as a coach, are knowingly choosing perspectives and assumptions that are empowering, it helps combat the unaware, or the unconscious bias that people may have in certain situations. And if you can start to become aware of that and realize, okay, I am now choosing this empowering assumption - those assumptions function a lot like emotion, where you can really only have one or two dominating emotions at any one time. I mean, you can have a lot of them, but there's usually one or two that dominate. Same with assumptions. And if you choose a conscious one that is empowering, you're on firm territory as a coach.

Raj Anderson: Brilliant. Thank you, John. And do you have anything else you want to share with us on your slides to kind of wrap this up?

John Andrew Williams: That was it. I mean, I literally made three slides. And it was fun to put together the one on growth mindset and fixed mindset. I have not put that together with the assumptions on the slide thing. I've done it with clients, but not in this visual form like this. And it was good, even just to do that really simple exercise to realize, wow, the action, what is the action of a growth mindset?

And it really is focusing on, are you building the habit in the system, in order to make sure that you continue to put an effort? Versus trying to win with as little effort as possible. Then you can ask yourself, what's the balance in your life? Like how much are you putting in, you know, what percentage of your effort is trying to build structures and systems to continue to put in effort, versus how much of your life is trying to win with as little as possible?

Raj Anderson: So John, if you were to give us - I love it. It's got me thinking I'm reflecting. And if you were to give us a question to reflect on, all of us, on assumptions, what is a question that we could be asking ourselves?

John Andrew Williams: I think, how is this assumption useful? It’s a helpful question, almost to ask at all points in time. Like even the negative ones, how is this useful? And then if it's not, set it aside. Choose different.

Raj Anderson: Thank you so much, John. Thank you for pulling together those slides. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience, and your perspectives. I love looking at the model, I'm going to review it again. I'm going to be reflecting on the question as well. I'm grateful for you. I'm grateful for the audience. And please send us your questions. Don't make any assumptions! Send us your questions. Ask us, and we'll look forward to seeing you next time.

John Andrew Williams: Thank you Raj. Thanks for the space. Bye everyone.

Raj Anderson: Thanks John.

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