Test Your Assumptions and Inferences

Roger Schwarz

Assumptions trip us up even when we’re acting in the best of faith.

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.

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.
  3. 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: “Susan, 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 Susan agrees, then I continue, “It sounds to me like you’re thinking that my team was responsible for the late materials, no?” However Susan responds, I’ve tested out my inference with her.

    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 action.

    Originally published October 2006