By: Tyler Reimschisel, MD, MHPE
In my Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article on Feb. 25, I discussed the perils of running up the ladder of inference as you act on untested inferences, assumptions and beliefs. In this article, I will suggest specific, practical steps that you can take to test your inferences, assumptions and beliefs. In my experience working on teams and coaching teams, I believe this is one of the most crucial skills for high-impact teamwork. In fact, it is one of the eight core behaviors in Roger Schwarz’s Mutual Learning approach to teamwork (Schwarz, 2013).
Before I comment on how to test your assumptions, inferences and beliefs, I think we should clarify when this testing should occur. As I pointed out in my previous article, humans are constantly making inferences and assumptions because our minds like to add meaning to what we experience. The problem is that we frequently draw conclusions and make meaning based on incomplete or erroneous data. In fact, because this “meaning making” occurs automatically and unconsciously, I think we make untested inferences and assumptions multiple times every day. Given the ubiquitous nature of these untested judgments and conclusions, we certainly cannot stop to test each one of them. Instead, I recommend that you test your inferences and assumptions if the action you would take based on that judgment, assumption or belief could have an untoward or a significantly detrimental impact on the other person, the team or the situation. For example, before you reply in anger at a colleague, report a co-worker to a supervisor or file a formal complaint against another person, it is imperative that you ensure you have not inadvertently run up the ladder of inference by acting on judgments or conclusions that are incomplete or inaccurate.
Perhaps some examples will help. Imagine you are working in one of your teams and you find yourself thinking things like “There she goes again. She always does that!” or “He makes me so angry when he responds that way.” or “That was a dumb thing to say.” or “In situations like these, I just wish they would take more ownership and be proactive to avoid these problems.” In general, I am referring to any situation where you feel your blood pressure rise or you sense tension in the conversation because there is a difference of perspectives or opinions among the team members. At the very moment when you start to feel this disturbance among the team, I encourage you to use the practical steps I describe below to test your inferences and assumptions. If you do this early in the situation before you run all the way up the ladder to actual actions, you will avoid many, many mistakes in your teamwork that you and others may need to apologize for later.
Now that you have a better understanding of when these steps apply, let’s talk through the steps themselves. The first step is actually more of a frame of mind, and I want to use an example from my clinical training to explain the mindset. When I was a pediatric neurology resident learning about the neurologic examination and how it correlated with neuroanatomy, I remember reading that I should approach the examination of my patients as if every component of the neurologic examination was abnormal and the patient had to prove that their function was normal. Although this may sound like the infamous “deficit-minded” approach to illness that physicians are prone to take, it is really about being intentional and thorough in the examination instead of simply assuming that the patient’s examination is normal and being surprised to find something abnormal. I have found this frame of mind to be extremely helpful in my work as a clinician, and it has helped me identify important neurologic findings that I probably would have missed if I had approached the examination with the assumption that it was all normal.
I think this frame of mind or approach to the neurologic examination is informative for how you should approach situations when you should test your conclusions, inferences and assumptions. When a situation arises where you need to test a conclusion or judgment, our typical default is to assume that we are fully correct and the other person is fully incorrect. This is analogous to thinking that the neurologic examination is normal in my patients and I will be surprised to find an abnormality. Instead, consciously resist the natural default of feeling that you are probably right and the other person is probably wrong. Instead, approach the situation with a growth mindset that your perspective is probably incomplete or inaccurate and the other person can help you fill in what you are missing or not seeing. Instead of thinking “I am going to tell them a thing or two,” I recommend having a sense of curiosity about what they can teach you from their perspective. My perspective is that this switch in our mindset can be a very productive way to avoid unconsciously running up the ladder of inference and stepping on that dangerous last rung at the top of the ladder. I acknowledge that this approach can be extremely challenging since our tendency is to assume we are correct. In fact, this phenomenon even made it to a book title—Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think. The belief that what I am thinking is correct is very natural, and I propose that assuming we are correct is a blind spot that every human has. Certainly addressing our blind spots and implicit biases is hard, but important, work and mitigating this specific bias is particularly helpful to our teamwork.
As you are coaching yourself into the right frame of mind, the next step I have found to be helpful is to intentionally pause the conversation. To do this, you may need to interrupt what is being said, “rewind” the conversation and review whatever occurred to cause the internal tension you are feeling. Like reframing your mindset to consider the possibility that you may be incorrect or have something to learn, this step can also be challenging because we tend to want to avoid conflict. We definitely do not want to step away from our work, slow the team down and go back to it. However, from my perspective, avoiding team conflict may save time and effort in the short term, but in the long term, it can be highly detrimental to effective teamwork. Consequential and important inferences and assumptions that remain unaddressed can undermine relationships within a team and can be corrosive to team solidarity. Therefore, when the tension relates to an important or critical issue for the team or you, it is essential that you lean into the potential conflict instead of ignoring it. You may need to call a team huddle so the team can formally step away from their ongoing tasks at the appropriate time in order to discuss the situation.
I understand that this can be challenging. It can be less difficult if there is psychological safety within the team, and that is why I recently discussed how teams can foster psychological safety. Given how challenging this situation can be, I think another important step in testing inferences and assumptions is to be honest and transparent about how hard it is for you to bring this issue to the team. As one of the core values of Schwarz’s mutual learning approach, transparency involves sharing your feelings as well as your thoughts. In this situation, you can share that raising this issue with the team is hard for you, that it makes you nervous, or that it is something you do not really want to do. Explicitly acknowledging your own vulnerability can help foster psychological safety and build trust among the team, and your contributions to deepen psychological safety and trust within the team can help the team talk through the issue more effectively. In other words, the way you approach the situation can actually set your team up to more effectively address the situation.
A further step that I have found helpful in testing assumptions and inferences is to give the other person an opportunity to restate or clarify what they did or said that led to the tension. You can say something like, “I heard you say [restate what you heard]. Did I hear that correctly?” or “Could you repeat what you said because I am not sure I heard you correctly?” This quick and straightforward step can sometimes be very effective because the other person may not have said exactly what they meant and/or you may not have heard them correctly. Once you do hear them correctly, you may still be unsure what they mean. In these situations, I would encourage them to expand on what they said or perhaps offer an example. Phrases that I frequently use include “Can you say more about that?” or “Help me understand your perspective.” This approach is based on Keegan’s deconstructive feedback model (Keegan and Lahey, 2002), and you will want to continue to ask them genuine, nonjudgmental questions until you are sure you understand their perspective. Just make sure your questions do not become confrontational or an interrogation as those are good examples of judgmental questions that are not productive in these situations. Also, a nice benefit of this step is that it gives you time to compose yourself and collect your thoughts!
As they are explaining their perspective or clarifying their actions, you are testing your inferences and assumptions. Through this process you may discover that you misheard them, you misinterpreted what was said, they misspoke, or they did not say exactly what they meant. In all of these scenarios, you have avoided reacting to mistaken assumptions and inferences. You have appropriately managed the ladder of inference. In my experience, the patience and self-control required to deliberately and methodically walk through the steps of testing my inference or assumption pays off with a sense of relief and accomplishment when I realize I avoided a mistake in my interactions with my teammates or averted an unnecessary conflict. Although sometimes I fail to apply these steps because I let myself run up the ladder of inference and act on untested judgments and assumptions, I am always glad when I intentionally invest the time to work through this process with my team.
I should also mention that sometimes you can work through these steps and you actually confirm that your inference or assumption was correct. In these situations, you may find that you have a disagreement or are in conflict with the other person or other members of your team. Conflicts certainly arise within high-impact teams, and taking the steps I describe above can help you manage them more productively. We will address the complexities of managing team conflict in future Tips for High-Impact Teamwork articles.
Kegan R and Laskow Lahey L. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. Wiley & Sons, 2002.
Schwarz R. Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. Jossey-Bass, 2013.