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Breaking the grip of bad assumption behaviour

When an assumptions questionnaire works well, the first sign may be a mostly quiet room. Faces will show that silent, innerdirected thinking is taking place. (A completely different expression than one indicating either boredom or caution or outer-directed thinking.)

woman and man on sofaPeople may be reluctant to talk about their answers to the questionnaire. Some may have immediately bought in to the new assumptions but prefer to skip the “By gosh, you’re right, teacher” behaviors. Others, their old thinking deeply challenged, may be unwilling to discuss something when they are not sure what they believe anymore. They need time to think. And some may want to speak up in defense of their old choices. But they may just be fighting a delaying action, waiting for the change discomfort to pass. Such “constructive temporizing” is often signaled by an exploratory note in people’s voices.

But suppose the questionnaire does generate heated objections? If a single person emits a howl of rage, you have probably flushed out an I-don’t-want-to-be-here-and-I’ll-be-damned-if-I’ll-learn-anything agenda. The questionnaire has surfaced, in advance, some of the very defenses the person came prepared to erect. Better to spot such people now than later when they launch a surprise attack and burn down a key learning point.

On the other hand, if several people raise strong objections, the questionnaire itself may be preaching false doctrine. Questionnaires can be used to challenge old incorrect assumptions, but not to teach new incorrect ones.


Once the participants have completed an assumptions questionnaire, the trainer’s self-discipline faces a severe test. Two mistakes are just begging to be made. First, you will be tempted to go through the questionnaire and use each preferred response as the text for a mini-sermon. Or you may try to use the questionnaire as a catechism: “Tell me what you learned from the questionnaire. Demonstrate that you are now a true believer.”

Both impulses should be resisted. At this point, three outcomes are possible: People have learned the lesson or they want more time to test it or they have rejected it. And no words you speak at this point will improve the odds on any of them.

On the other hand, people may need to speak to you. Some might be puzzled: “I’m not sure I understand number….” Some might want their learning affirmed: “Does this really mean that…?” Some might need an opportunity to say: “But I always thought…” (usually a good sign that someone is in the process of changing her thinking). And, on rare occasions, someone may want to celebrate: “Of course!”

Your best tactic is to ask: “Do you have any questions? Are there any particular responses you want to talk about?” Then any requests for information should be answered succinctly, any statements that signal learning is occurring should be affirmed (without elaboration), and then – when the trainees have no more to say – everyone should proceed to the next step of the exercise.


An assumptions questionnaire can be a lot like changing your car’s oil: The results may not be visible unless you don’t do it. If the questionnaire accurately neutralizes people’s blocking assumptions, the only evidence may be the subsequent absence of those assumptions from the course. People will get on with their new learning without having to waste time defending their old learning. (And if you misjudge the assumptions people bring into the course, everyone may pass off the questionnaire as just another of those weird things trainers do.)

Trainers often open a session with a contracting discussion designed to do the same job proposed for questionnaires – that is, to get blocking assumptions out in the open and, the trainer hopes, neutralized. In theory, learning contracts are great. In practice, results are less predictable:

* The trainer usually ends up owning the contract. We come to a training session loaded for bear, complete with our carefully designed learning sequence, four-color projectables, and custom-printed materials. Do we really dare to risk letting the trainees write the learning contract? Of course not. They might decide they want to take a different course. Or five different courses. So contracting discussions usually end up as a polite way for trainers to proclaim the special relevance of what they intend to teach, and for trainees to nod their heads politely while they think, “We’ll see.”

* Contracting discussions seldom uncover radically different assumptions. At the beginning of the course, no one (except old be-damned-if-I’ll-learn-anything) is likely to challenge the trainer on a serious difference. Each person is feeling his way, trying to gauge the trainer’s style and calculate the survival skills needed.

* Blocking assumptions can be too slippery for contracts. We are all inconsistent in our thinking. We can believe in contradictory assumptions, and we can shift from assumption to assumption as the focus of our thinking changes. So trainees may not take seriously, at a distance, trainer assumptions that differ from their own. They may start to show signs of resistance only when the trainer asks them to risk experimenting with new work behaviors based upon unaccustomed assumptions.

Good assumptions questionnaires counter these drawbacks in six ways:

1. Questionnaires force people to deal with contradictory assumptions simultaneously. When reading from the computer screen, a person might object: “E-mail messages just go on and on. Writers take forever to get to the point.” When writing on the same screen, however, that person might happily declare: “E-mail is a lot easier. I can just put down my ideas as I think through what I’m trying to say.” But no one could announce, with a straight face, and in the same breath, “I hate long, rambling e-mail messages; but others welcome the long, rambling e-mail messages I write.”

2. Questionnaires can force people to confront deeper assumptions that drive their behavior but contradict their declared beliefs. (See the accompanying questionnaire for trainers on page 59.) Arthur, for instance, is no dummy. With years of experience developing products, he knows that his proposals are critical to the success of the company and that the marketing vice president must be able to understand them. What he cannot fathom is his inability to change how he writes them. We all have an “inner audience” to whom we habitually write. Arthur needs to discover that his inner audience is populated by engineering professors from his past – and that the most dogmatic one probably has the loudest voice in his memory. A tough questionnaire choice might start to free him from having always to appease those fearsome pronouncements.

3. Questionnaires allow for private learning. Asking people to change a belief mobilizes powerful resistance. And resistance loves to resist. A trainer who publicly asks people to challenge their blocking assumptions will trigger mostly fight or flight. But a well-designed questionnaire leaves people alone to wage their learning battles in private.

4. Questionnaires trigger the unblocking process; the rest happens in harmony with the individual’s own learning pace and mode. The purpose is not to convert trainees – in the opening 20 minutes of the course – to the trainer’s assumptions. The purpose is to get them to start doubting their old blocking assumptions and to start testing some new assumptions against their own experience.

5. Questionnaires not only enable learning, they help safeguard it. Assumptions protect learning – good learning or bad, old learning or new. A questionnaire not only challenges blocking assumptions, it puts into words better alternatives. When people take their tentative new skills back to the worksite, they need a shield against the counterattacks that will inevitably be launched by the old assumptions still in force there. Only new assumptions that they understand, have tested, believe in, and can talk about will serve.

6. A questionnaire provides a nonconfrontational way to publish the trainer’s assumptions. A questionnaire can be a way to say: “Here are some things I believe in. What I teach has to be congruent with these assumptions, or it will not make sense to any of us.”

And perhaps we should add a seventh benefit: A questionnaire can force trainers, ahead of time, to call to consciousness their own assumptions, then to make sure they are consistent and bear scrutiny.


einstein asking what are you thinkingLike other powerful tools, assumptions questionnaires can cause damage if not used carefully. Don’t set traps. A good questionnaire forces people to make difficult, uncomfortable choices. But it should never be used to trick them into making “wrong” choices. The first objective is neither to expose ignorance nor to make people believe the same things the trainer believes. It is to unlock their minds so learning can get in.

Don’t force trainees to reveal their answers. Thanks to their schooling, most people equate marking answers with being tested, and choosing differently with choosing incorrectly.

Don’t try to fine-tune people’s attitudes. When writing an assumptions questionnaire, the temptation is to cover all the bases and sort out subtle differences of perception. Pick a few important ideas, then make the distinctions between them clear. Let the questionnaire do its work. A good assumptions questionnaire can actually teach (see sidebar page 60). Trainers cannot strengthen the lesson by talking. But they can obliterate the lesson by talking too much or by saying the wrong things.

Be careful of the deep stuff, like prejudices learned in childhood. Unless you are an extremely skilled facilitator, a probing assumptions questionnaire might be a disaster in a diversity workshop.

Get the first draft vetted. Then the second draft. Then the third. As writers, we can never be sure what we said. We only know what we think we said. And our close colleagues are likely to understand what we meant to say. Get outsiders to read your questionnaire and tell you what choices it actually offers.

A final caveat: Questionnaires are not for everybody. Trainers committed to the if-I-don’t-say-it-they’ll-never-know-it teaching philosophy may find that questionnaires don’t work for them. Effectiveness suffers when participants are stifling the urge to shout, “Be quiet! We’re trying to learn something!

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