In the O. Henry short story “The
Gift of the Magi,” Delia and Jim Young are a young married
couple with very little money. On the day before Christmas,
Delia cuts her long beautiful hair and sells it for making a
wig, so that she can buy Jim a platinum chain for his prized
pocket watch. Meanwhile, Jim sells his pocket watch to buy Delia
a beautiful set of combs for her flowing, knee-length hair.
The story has intrigued me since I first read it as a teenager.
It’s about love and selflessness. It’s also about assumptions.
Delia and Jim each take for granted that the other will keep his
or her prized possession. It seems unfair that two people who
act so selflessly toward each other should have to suffer from
the assumptions they made about each other.
But that’s the thing. Assumptions trip us up even when
we’re acting in the best of faith.
Assumptions and inferences. Assumptions are
things we take for granted. When I leave the grocery store and
walk to my car, I assume it will be in the same place I parked
it. An inference is a little different. It’s a conclusion we
reach about something we don’t know based on something we do
know. Say we’re in a division meeting talking about how we
missed an important deadline. You say, “Well, we wouldn’t be
in this situation if the marketing materials had been ready to
ship.” I might infer from your comment that you think my
team was responsible for producing the marketing materials and
therefore missing the deadline. Notice that I’m telling myself a
story about what you are thinking and why you are thinking it.
The problem isn’t that we make assumptions and inferences. It’s
natural to make them and we couldn’t get through the day without
making them. The problem is that we usually aren’t aware
that we’re making them, so our only choice is to act as
if they are true. When we act as if our assumptions and
inferences are true and they’re not, that’s when we create
problems for ourselves and others - poor decisions,
lack of understanding, low commitment, and mistrust.
In my experience, untested inferences are one of the main
reasons that one on one and group conversations unravel. If
people learned only to test out their inferences, they would
make huge improvements in the results they get and the
relationships they build.
To test inferences productively, you need to do two things:
1) Become aware of the inferences you’re making – as you
are making them; and 2) test out your inferences in a way that
doesn’t contribute to making others defensive. Let’s
look at each.
Becoming aware. The first step to becoming
aware of your inferences is to understand how you move from data
to inference. When you are talking with someone, you hear what
they say and see what they do – all of this is what we call
directly observable data. But you filter that data and pay
attention only to certain parts of it. Then you start to
tell yourself a story about what it means and finally
you decide how to react to the story you told yourself. Moving
from data to your story and to deciding how to react is known as
going up the ladder of inference. After you understand how this
process works, you can start monitoring your thinking and
recognizing when you are starting to tell yourself a story.
After you begin to identify when you’re making inferences, you
can then decide whether it’s worth testing out any particular
inference you make.
Testing inferences: If you do decide to test out an
inference, the mechanics are relatively simple. You start by
stating what you have seen and/or heard and check to see whether
the other person(s) see if differently. Then you state what you
have inferred that the behavior means and check to see whether
the person(s) have made a different meaning of the behavior. I
might test out my inference above like this: “Bronwyn, a
minute ago I think you said that ‘we wouldn’t be in this
situation if we had shipped the marketing materials on time.’ Am
I wrong?” If you agree, then I continue, “It sounds to
me like you’re thinking that my team was responsible for the
late materials, no?” However you respond, I’ve tested out
my inference with you.
Testing inferences improves decision making – and it also
improves your mental health. You spend much less time worrying
about what others are thinking and more time taking productive
Interested in learning how to productively test assumptions and
inferences and to help groups do the same?
Click here to learn more about or to register for my
upcoming teleclass this month on Testing Assumptions and