Assumptions and Learning

By Chris Chittenden

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”

… Orville Wright (1871 - 1948) US inventor and aviation pioneer

Having been involved in the world of ontological coaching for over fifteen years, there have been two key themes that seemed to have shown up over and over again. The first is the unquestioned assumptions that people hold that lead them to see the world in a certain way. The second, which often stems from our unquestioned assumptions, is the requests and ultimately the promises that are not made in order to create a difference with others. Today, we would like to focus on our unquestioned assumptions.

An assumption is a story about something or someone that we take as being true. As we have seen many times before in our newsletters, if we believe something to be true then we generally do not question it and continue to interpret and act on the basis of that truth. As coaches, we constantly deal with the challenges people face. One of our key strategies in helping people deal with those challenges lies in testing their assumptions. Although, this may sound an obvious approach, most people do not delve into their assumptions with any depth, particularly if they don’t take the time for reflection.

To explore the power of assumptions let’s look at a simple example. In many ways, a coach’s work is to help people learn. One of the basic assumptions people hold is the meaning of “learning”. When asked, the vast majority people will offer an answer such as “learning is getting to know or understand something”. In other words, if you know about it then you have learnt it. This is not surprising as most of us have had exposure to a traditional approach to learning through our educational system that is largely about getting to know something. In the world of coaching, this definition of learning is insufficient. Why?

Well, think about driving a car. You could spend years reading about cars and what is involved in driving them, without ever getting behind a wheel. As a result, you may know about driving without actually being able to drive. Driving a car involves the experience of actually driving, not simply knowing about driving. This applies to any domain. Our work often focuses on leadership. Most people in leadership have been on leadership programs of one sort or another and to varying degrees “know” about leadership. Yet many of them do not apply what they know. They do not see this as a further area of learning.

This can be seen in the way organisations treat learning. Based on the generally unquestioned assumption that learning is about acquiring knowledge, the majority of an organisation’s learning investments seems to go towards acquiring more knowledge and much less to the ongoing application of what people know. As a result, a lot of the investment in learning does not translate expected changes in habitual attitudes and actions. Yet, these habitual changes only occur through practice.

For the coach, this often manifests in a barrier to learning where the client holds that “I already know this” and therefore they have nothing to learn. Accordingly, one of the key challenges that often show up for a coach is to shift the basic assumption about the definition of learning.

Although, we have touched on the subject of learning here, questioning assumptions can be a very powerful way of opening up new interpretations and conversations. If you are having a challenge of any sort, we invite you to question your assumptions and what assumptions are shared with others. You may well be surprised about the obviousness of the breakdowns created by your unquestioned assumptions.

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© 2009 Chris Chittenden