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Avoiding Assumptions in Coaching

Assumption is defined as ‘a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof ‘ by the Oxford Dictionary, whilst the Cambridge Dictionary define assumption as ‘a willingness to accept something as true without question or proof ’.

I once coached at an organisation where an email to employees informed them of pending redundancies and retrenchments.

The person I met with that morning had received an email confirming they were not on the redundancy roster, nor was their job in danger. 

I assumed that she had read both emails before our coaching session.

As I launched a discussion around the upcoming redundancies, my client was shocked and went into a tailspin.

It took a few minutes to bring her back from that, and the rest of the session was nowhere near as productive as it could have been had I not made the assumptions I did.

Uncovering the truth

So, how should we view assumptions?

The world we live in requires us to process so much information and make decisions with limited insights. We survive by making assumptions and proceeding based on what we assume to be true.

It’s a natural part of being a human being in environments that require social collaboration.

If you reframe your assumptions as unproven and untested hypotheses, you can then look to surface the truth around your assumptions and help others do the same.

In the example provided, I could have started the coaching session by asking if my client had read her emails regarding the pending changes in the organisational structure.

I could have allowed her a few minutes to read the emails, satisfied herself that she wasn’t in any danger from the redundancies, and embarked on a productive discussion around the impact of those potential redundancies in her department and sphere of influence.

It’s ok to have assumptions, and it’s often perfectly natural. 

You don’t need to believe your assumptions, and you can cue them up as opportunities to learn and discover.

The Value of Questions

A coach asks questions to uncover the truth and discover the perceived reality of any given situation.

Questioning assumptions is a big part of being a coach. Questioning your assumptions and helping others to question theirs.

  • Is this true? 
  • What is the evidence that supports your assumption, and how reliable is it? 
  • Based on the evidence, what are your options moving forward? 
  • What does it mean if your assumption isn’t valid? How does that impact what you are doing? What do you plan to do?

Powerful questions are an essential tool for coaches to test hypotheses and help clients achieve clarity. It’s a two-way street, though, in that it is just as crucial for a coach to use questions to test their hypotheses and gain clarity.

Questions allow you to surface the truth or reality of any given situation and form a valuable point of departure for future planning and decision-making.

We’ll dive deeper into the value of questions in the ‘Powerful Questions’ module.

Avoiding Assumptions

Avoiding assumptions doesn’t mean that you won’t have assumptions. It simply means that you cannot accept those assumptions without testing them to be true or false.

Scrum Theory is built on the concept of empiricism. Empiricism means that you know what you know because you have evidence to support the conclusions you have drawn.

Coaching requires the same.

Look to build on your knowledge with facts and evidence before accepting something to be true.

Questions allow you to uncover insights and additional information that informs where you steer the conversation and coaching engagement next. Based on what you know to be true, and given that you don’t have evidence to support it, what are the options moving forward?

This article is an extract from our On-Demand Introduction to Coaching course with John McFadyen.

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