This quote by Hemingway, as a writer for writers, applies equally well to facilitative leaders.
So often we communicate with one another through unspoken assumptions and agendas, often without realizing it. Unconscious assumptions present huge barriers to clear communication and understanding.
As group leaders, one of the most powerful things we can do is to act as detectives in search of assumptions, rout them out, and expose them for what they are, ideas that we’ve accepted as true without verification. Once our insidious assumptions are discovered and labeled, deeper relationships can be cultivated based on mutual respect and understanding. But when we react to our assumptions, we react to the unreal, and often, to the projections of our worst fears.
Are you operating free of assumptions?
It’s possible, but unlikely. Ponder the following story then revisit this question.
What choice would you make?
A group of children are playing near two railway tracks – one set of tracks is still in use while the other isn’t. Only one child plays on the disused track, the rest on the operational track. The train comes, and you are beside the track interchange. You realize you could make the train change its course to the disused track and save most of the kids.
However, this would also mean the lone child playing by the disused track would be sacrificed.
What would you do? Let the train take its predetermined course or intervene to save all but one of the children?
Take a pause to think what kind of decision you would make…
Analyze the situation
- Think and reflect.
- Decide on your answer and write down the assumptions you made.
- What do your choices say about your assumptions?
Many would choose to divert the course of the train, and sacrifice only one child. To save most of the children at the expense of only one child is a rational decision, morally and emotionally.
But, did you consider that the child playing on the disused track had in fact made the right decision to play at a safe place? And the other children were aware of the risk and are in a better position to be alert and run from the danger when they hear the train?
If the train were diverted, that lone child would likely die because he wouldn’t think the train could come over to that track! Moreover, that track was probably not in use because it was not safe. If the train was diverted to the other track, the lives of all passengers on board could be at stake as well!
This kind of dilemma happens around us everyday. In the office, community, in politics and especially in a democratic society – the minority is often sacrificed for the interest of the majority, no matter how foolish or ignorant the majority is, and how farsighted and knowledgeable the minority is.
There is an unspoken assumption that sacrificing the minority for the majority is the ‘right’ thing to do, but challenging this assumption with the train story brought to light far more layers to the situation.
While we are all aware that life is full of tough decisions that need to be made, we may not realize that hasty decisions may not always be the best ones. “Remember that what’s best isn’t always popular… and what’s popular isn’t always best.”
How do we detect assumptions? David Bohm, quoted by Peter Senge in the “Fifth Discipline,” identifies three types of incoherence in our thinking that lead to assumptions:
1. Denial that you are a participant (It’s not my fault! Look at what they did!)
2. You stop tracking with reality and start running your program (did you run a societal program in the exercise above to make your choice?).
3. You establish your own standard of reference for fixing problems, problems this frame contributed to creating in the first place (e.g. when someone harms us, we have to harm them in return).
Three conditions necessary for true “dialogue
Senge goes on to suggest three conditions necessary for true “dialogue”:
1. All participants must “suspend” their assumptions, literally to hold them “as if suspended before us.”
2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues.
3. There must be a “facilitator” (that’s you!) who “holds the context” of dialogue (i.e. attends to group process).
Think of a task or problem you are working on right now. Chances are, you have some assumptions about the situation or people involved. Use the above criteria for detecting assumptions to figure out what they are. Share your questions, feedback, or experience on this matter in the comments section below.