How to Avoid Dangerous Assumptions in Coaching
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ― Isaac Asimov
Assumptions are everywhere and we use them every day. Our brains are hardwired to assume – it saves energy so that our brain can focus on other areas it deems more important for our survival.
We make assumptions at both a conscious and subconscious level about both our inner and outer world. Our types of assumptions can range from our perception of how the world works (e.g., you may assume the sun will rise tomorrow and then assume you live to see it), about people (you may assume that someone may react a certain way in a given situation) and assumptions about ourselves.
But what happens when you make assumptions in your coaching sessions? How does this affect the coaching relationship and what can you do about it?
This article will look at the use and potential dangers of assumptions in coaching. We’ll explore some examples of common assumptions as well as strategies to help you work on reducing their use in your coaching sessions.
First, let’s take a look at some examples of common assumptions that may come up in coaching sessions.
As coaches, we might assume that:
- Silence in the conversation means the client is not paying attention.
- Your client will react the same way as they previously have in a similar scenario.
- Behaviors are directly related to what’s going on inside for the client.
- Stereotypes are the reality (e.g., assuming that because your client shows up wearing dirty clothing with holes in it, they must be struggling financially).
- You and your client have shared experiences.
- A client can relate to a metaphor you used.
- You are not an “effective coach” because your client is not getting to where they want to be (assumptions about your own competencies).
Any of these sound familiar?
Now, let’s look at why assumptions can be dangerous.
The danger is not necessarily the assumption itself or whether your assumption is right or wrong. It’s the process and use of believing in and acting on the assumptions in the first place and allowing those assumptions to “fog the windows,” affecting the pathway to learning for both you and your client.
When you assume things about your client, you are operating from your own subjective experience and not learning about your client’s way of being, thinking and believing. Thus, assumptions can negatively affect the coaching relationship, the coaching process and the client’s learning, development and goals (and your own).
To help you understand this further, here is a list of possible consequences when a coach assumes:
- Poor rapport. The client may not feel understood, respected, heard or trusted, or may feel judged and unsafe.
- Limited ability to evoke awareness. You may block access to blind spots, hidden areas.
- Neglect of the REAL issue, issue behind the issue.
- Hindrance or closure of the pathway of learning, both for you, and the client.
- Confusing judgments and assumptions.
So, how do we work on avoiding making assumptions (clean those windows) when our brains are evolved to assume?
Here are 9 Strategies:
- Acknowledge your use of assumptions. Assume that you are assuming.
- Familiarize yourself with types of assumptions
- Evoke self-awareness (internal and external) – try these steps:
- Record and listen to yourself coaching.
- Have a Mentor coach listen to your recordings and provide feedback.
- Recognize and identify common assumptions you make.
- Reflect after each appointment (e.g., on my client session notes, I include a section called “coach’s reflection”).
- Notice your use of assumptions in your everyday life, not just in coaching sessions.
- Challenge and untangle your assumption:
- Identify the assumption.
- Ask yourself: Could I be wrong? What else could be true?
- Adopt a coaching mindset. Stay curious. Stay in a state of not knowing. Replace assuming with asking.
- Do assume that you don’t know everything.
- Practice consciously NOT assuming in and out of coaching sessions. This is a skill. It needs training, development and continuous practice.
- Engage in continuous professional development.
- Practice self-care. The more tired and fatigued your brain is, the more likely you are to rely on.
Is there ever a time to use conscious assumptions in Coaching?
Maybe. What I like to call “purposeful assumptions” may actually help you get more clarity into a situation or help the client see things in a different way.
For example, you may purposely share an assumption to challenge the client. It may prompt them to counter that assumption with something like, “Actually no, I don’t feel that, or want that, or think that.” This is a great opportunity for further exploration if you follow up by asking, “I’m curious, what does it feel like for you? Or what is it that you really are after?”
Lastly, acknowledge that assumptions are inevitable, so be nice to yourself. You likely would not have survived this far in life without using and relying on assumptions. Just clear those windows when working with clients!