Reflecting on our Assumptions

By: Jacqueline McKethan
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[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jacqueline McKethan, Information Security Specialist at Southern Methodist University.  She is a MOR alum.  Jacqueline may be reached at jmckethan@mail.smu.edu.]

The start of the fall semester is one of the busiest times of the year for many of us.  As we embark on a unique fall semester, the idea of being bound by our assumptions stands out for me, and has prompted me to spend time questioning the assumptions I hold about others’ behaviors and tendencies. Our beliefs, assumptions and observations create mental models, which are the stories we carry in our mind to make sense of the world. These models can be tested by using two practices  - Reflection (slowing down our thinking and considering “why do I think this?”) and Inquiry (verifying, considering “is it true?”).

Using this test has allowed me to start reframing some of the perceived negative traits or behaviors of others as strengths, rather than irritants or hurdles to be overcome. For example “this person is never happy with any solution we propose” could be replaced with “this person is truly committed to finding the best solution, and is a great resource to reach out to for feedback – when they do give their seal of approval, it really means something.” This latter way of thinking lends itself easily to the 4 I’s – I would be more likely to initiate a conversation with this person and inquire, rather than possibly even avoid their feedback.

Another idea that MOR has prompted me to look at more closely is how I can think differently about the way I contribute to the dynamic of my team - I don’t have any direct reports, so these efforts are aimed towards my supervisor and teammates. At the beginning of my MOR program, I was not too surprised that the results of my strengths assessment showed higher scores in empathy.  I had not previously thought of this as a leadership trait or something to particularly value in a professional context. In fact, I probably considered it a weakness. By causing me to reframe that mental model, MOR has helped me challenge an assumption that I was holding about myself.

It also seems to me that the process of questioning assumptions (Reflection and Inquiry) is a lot like using the 4 I’s on our own patterns of thinking: initiate – start the process of identifying our assumptions, inquire – is it really true? Invest – if it’s not true, what can it be replaced with? Influence – change something about our own thinking, which in turn affects the way we relate to that person and could improve the relationship. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it works for me – I like being able to tie many of the various concepts in the program to one foundational idea. It helps me remember them, and enables me to have one core practice to rely on, knowing that it leads to many positive results.

I am starting to realize that empathy combined with the ability to critically think about my own assumptions about myself and others could help clarify additional ways that I can contribute and help my team achieve results. This reframing of my own assumptions about empathy will also hopefully allow me to continue to build confidence as a leader.  I hope you find this reflection helpful as you perhaps consider beneficial ways you could pause to reflect or inquire during this busy time of the year.

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