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19 July 2013

Shifting the big assumptions that keep you stuck

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Some time ago I wrote a blog about Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s Immunity to Change process (which is more fully described in their book of the same name, and in their first book How the Way You Talk Can Change the Way You Work). You can find that post here. I’ve realized today as I’ve sifted through old blogs to send something to a client, that I never wrote about the follow up to their process—the question of what do you do after you’ve discovered your Big Assumption? Here’s a brief look at the five step process Bob and Lisa offer in their books.

  1. Awareness. All of us have assumptions that shape our lives. We couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if we didn’t unconsciously assume a variety of things about the world around us. Some of those assumptions, though, work against the changes we are most wanting to make. It’s those assumptions that you need to become aware of—as assumptions and not just as un-questioned truth. Their exercise is obviously a really good way to uncover these assumptions. So is The Leadership Circle 360.
  2. Noticing.The second step to this process is to just pay attention during your daily life to find where this Big Assumption might be operating, shaping the choices you make—even shaping the choices you think are available. Because the Big Assumption has been operating below the surface, you might not even have a sense of how big it really is until you begin to look for that.
  3. Charting the history. Mostly your Big Assumption came into your life when you were little and less powerful, and seeing where it came from helps you understand it better. It was probably born during a time when the assumption was much closer to the truth about the conditions of your life, and the Big Assumption was there to protect you. But the Big Assumption didn’t mature as you matured, and so it still has a younger view (the view from your smaller self) and it keeps you locked in that view. It’s as if a beloved family dog learned to protect you as a kid by barking at kids who looked threatening. That might have comforted you when you were 8 and the 10-year-olds were scary, but now that you’re a 25 year old, your dog needs to stop barking at 10-year-olds. Your Big Assumption is like that too—in need of new ideas about what’s dangerous to the grown up you.
  4. Searching for discrepant evidence. Kegan and Lahey remind us that if we don’t look for evidence that contradicts our Big Assumptions, we’re nearly certain not to find it. I think of it as the “fluke” principle. When we have evidence that contradicts one of our most closely held beliefs, we write that evidence off as a fluke. Have a big assumption about needing to be perfect? Any time when you do something imperfectly and it all works out well—that’s a fluke. Have a Big Assumption about conflict? Any time conflict deepens relationships and makes people happier—that’s a fluke. The problem with flukes is they’re all one-off events—that’s what makes them flukes. Even if you have thousands of these “one-off” events, you can’t learn from them because you can’t see the pattern. This step in the change process is to bring all the flukes—the discrepant evidence—together so that you can learn some of the limitations of the Big Assumption.
  5. Designing safe to fail tests of the Big Assumption. Here, at the very end of the list of things to do to help you change, is finally a behavior change. Now that you’ve charted and noticed and gathered evidence, now you can begin to design safe-to-fail experiments about your Big Assumption. The key here is that they’re safe-to-fail—so that you will learn from them whichever way it goes, and so they don’t get you in trouble. You don’t want to test out your Big Assumption about conflict with your colleague with an anger management problem; you don’t want to practice letting go of perfectionism as you prep for your job interview at your dream job.

Over time, as you practice these steps, you won’t find your Big Assumption goes away completely. And you wouldn’t want it to—it’s kept you safe all these years. What you’ll find is that it begins to get more and more conditional, and, as it does that, your Big Assumption begins to get a lot smaller. And soon, instead of having it control you, you’ll have control of it, as you wonder specifically to yourself—is this a place where my perfectionism is useful? Or, Are my fears about conflict warranted? And as your Big Assumption gets even incrementally smaller, your desired changes become significantly more likely. (For more on this, read either one of Kegan and Lahey’s excellent books on this topic.)


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