When you find yourself saying something should be a certain way, you’re in a big assumption. When you believe you have a lock on the way it has be done, you’re in a big assumption.
When there, you can be certain you’re in for a challenge from someone.
Big assumptions, also known as mental models, are the stories and images we carry around with us all the time. They are what make it possible to navigate the world. They act as guideposts, allowing us to make sense of what is going on around us.
They come from all the important influences that go into making us who we are, and are a result of the way the brain operates. As a self-organizing, patterning system, the brain looks for information that fits into and reinforces patterns it already knows, and discards data that doesn’t quite fit.
Consequently, these stories and images are inherently flawed. They blind us to other ways of seeing. Other ways that are equally legitimate but that come from different experiences, different backgrounds, different ways of thinking and making sense.
Why is this important? Because many times when we are caught in challenging and unsatisfying conversations it’s because we’re locked in a battle over mental models trying to assert we are “more right” than the other person. So much of our poisoned discourse today is a direct result of big assumptions too tightly held.
Occasionally, we do have the more legitimate perspective, but usually there is no one right answer, no single, simple truth. If there was, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
This is a big reason we have a conversation in the first place: to explore each others’ big assumptions; to be curious and to learn something about ourselves.
Really? Isn’t conversation mostly about convincing the other person that she’s wrong?
(Embedded in that question is its own mental model about what conversation is supposed to do.)
This idea asks us to shift from a teaching and telling mode to a learning stance. Learning can be scary; it can make us seem vulnerable. What if I’m not as right as I believe I am? What if by opening myself up to other ways of thinking and seeing I decide I want to change my mind? Where am I then?
Well, you might have learned about the limits of your thinking, and in so doing further clarified your own perspective. You may find that the source of the disagreement is a set of unshared assumptions about what is important. You may be missing some vital information. All this may be true for the other person as well.
The lesson in all this is to hold our big assumptions (or mental models) gently. We can’t get rid of them, nor do we necessarily need to change them. Recognizing that they exist and developing the ability to be curious about them can open up a way of growing out of the repetitive cycle of destructive conflict that bogs down so much of our organizational lives.