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How to Help a Client Challenge Their Assumptions

November 10, 2022 by Amanda Reill

“Who would I be without this thought?” - Byron Katie

Fears, negative beliefs about ourselves, hang-ups, grudges — we all battle these demons from time to time, and they’re often rooted in assumptions. We carry on in life for months, years, or even decades based on them. These assumptions can keep us alienated from others, stymied in our work lives, and stuck in self-destructive patterns.

How to Help a Client Challenge Their Assumptions

The tricky part is that we often don’t even realize we are trapped in our assumptions. That’s where coaching comes in.

As coaches, we often serve as mirrors. Our goal is not to provide counsel or answers, but sometimes simply to reflect back what someone says or to ask a curious question to help someone “hear themselves.” A question that comes up a lot in coaching has to do with assumptions: What assumptions do you think you might be making in that situation/relationship/thought?

Discovering assumptions

In response to that question, often three or four assumptions will emerge. Encourage your client to choose one that seems to be the primary driver. Allison’s assumption may be that others aren’t interested in friendship with her. Paul may assume that he’s not capable of advancing any farther in his career. Write the assumption down in your notes, or if your client is taking notes, they can do it also. 

Next, translate that assumption into a perspective and give it a name. The perspective could be called “Lonely Allison” or “Incapable Paul.” They can also label it with another descriptor like “stagnant perspective” or “limited perspective.” Given that perspective, ask your client to list some actions that often follow that perspective.

Lonely Allison might choose to stay home on weekends because she worries people don’t really want to be around her. Incapable Paul may hesitate to volunteer for certain tasks at work because he’s afraid of failing. 

These actions lead to evidence, which often turn our assumptions into self-fulfilling prophecies. Ask your client to detail the results, or evidence, that come from this perspective’s actions. Lonely Allison continues to be lonely and never meets any new people because she continually stays home and keeps to herself. Incapable Paul doesn’t get promotions, raises, or experience a positive sense of self because he doesn’t want to risk failure, excluding him from any chance at success.

Challenging assumptions

When you’ve completed the full cycle with the initial assumption, invite your client into an assumption challenging exercise. The point is not to rush to judgments — caution them if they hurry into acknowledging that those assumptions are “wrong.” Much of coaching is like science - we observe, hypothesize, and test our hypotheses before we draw conclusions.

Conversely, ensure that your client knows that you’re not rushing to those judgments either. If it was easy to change an assumption, we would have done it already. The real work comes in the power of consideration.

Return to the original assumption and discover with your client its opposite. For Allison, that may be “there are many people who would be grateful to have a friend like her.” For Paul, that could be that his career path is only beginning. These assumptions translate into perspectives that need names - it could be “Likable Allison” or “Potential Paul.”

List out together what actions could arise from these perspectives. Allison could confidently walk into a happy hour with some ladies from her area she met on social media, or reach out to an old friend she hasn’t connected with in awhile. Underlying assumptions like “that person hasn’t reached out to me because they don’t like spending time with me” will likely rise to the surface, and Allison may begin to consider the possibility that the friend has been busy or consumed by their own struggles.

Paul could begin researching what skills he could add to his toolbelt to be doing more of what he enjoys at work. He could posit the idea that it may be time to talk with his manager about some of his goals or ask for a raise - something he had never considered doing before. 

New evidence can rise to the surface as a result of these actions. Allison might make a new connection or rekindle an old one that puts a smile on her face for the rest of the week. Paul may discover that his manager is really enthusiastic about his new ideas and even wants to devote resources toward his career advancement.

No one - Allison, Paul, or you, can guarantee these positive results. It’s important to find a hopeful perspective with open hands that says if the first attempt fails, there are other good things in life waiting for me. Help your client develop this game plan and ask what well-designed action could come out of their reflections on these assumptions.

How to avoid assumptions

If negativity were a shape, it would be a spiral. The force of gravity keeps water draining down the tub in that familiar spiral shape, but if you clap your hand over the drain, you can keep from losing all the water. Curiosity is what interrupts a negative thought spiral. Ending a habit of negative assumptions about yourself or others is not a matter of willpower, it’s a practice of noticing. 

Ask your client if there’s a practical interruption they could design to use when they notice intrusive thoughts. It might make sense to set a timer for 10 minutes of meditation, or take out a piece of paper (or even a napkin) and write out the assumptions, perspectives, actions, and evidence related to these thoughts.

It’s a joy and delight to partner with your client in snipping one (or 10) strings that hold them back from a healthy, happy future. Keep doing the good work!

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