Got Assumptions?

A recent study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. What do you make of this?  I think that it dramatically demonstrates that the desire, motivation and knowledge needed for us to make changes are not enough to do it-even when it’s literally a matter of life or death!  


There is another way. Lisa Lehay and Robert Kegan are professors, researchers, authors and long-time collaborators at Harvard University. As a result of their research, Lehay and Kegan have created a different approach to making changes and goal attainment. The fundamental difference between ordinary approaches to change and their approach is that it starts with your mindset rather than your skill set. We are all functioning with a set of beliefs they call “big assumptions”, that run us. Their system enables you to identify and examine your assumptions.


What follows is an outline of their system. It will give you a feel for how it works. Using their “immunity map” made up of four columns, you can uncover your big assumptions. As examples, I have included how Bill and Mary might fill in their maps. 


Column No.1: Your Goal

The first column is your goal, one that is important to you.

Bill: I am committed to the importance of losing weight.

Mary: I am committed to relaxing my perfectionistic tendencies.


Column No. 2: What You Do
This is where you list the behaviors that prevent you from achieving your goal.
This is where we usually get stuck, thinking that using a new skill set (technical change) will work, but it does not, as many of us know from repeated failed efforts. The two columns that follow are about your mindset (adaptive change), which does work.
Bill: I eat more than I need for my size, snack, eat the wrong foods, fats and sugar. I eat for pleasure not for nourishment.

Mary: I don’t ask for help or accept help when it’s offered and needed, I take a ton of work home, and I work late almost every night.


Column No. 3: Why You Do It
When you are not doing something you believe would benefit you, it is because you have “competing commitments” that are holding you back. These are usually rooted in the fears that arise when you read through column No. 2 and ask yourself: What makes not doing column 2 feel so scary? I like the way Lahey describes this as being in “some ways a very tender expression, a protection of something you feel vulnerable about.”
Bill: I don’t want others to see me as a dieter. I want to forget my problems and enjoy food and life. I use food to ward off unpleasant feelings.

Mary: I worry that someone else won’t do a good job, and if they do, I’ll be less essential and less respected.

Column No. 4: Assumptions

The “competing commitments” listed in column No. 3 are the result of some “big assumptions.” These are ideas we hold to be true even though, until we challenge them (more on that below), we have no way of knowing for sure.

One way to uncover our big assumptions is to apply “If ____, then ____” thinking to our competing commitments in column No.3.

Bill: If I diet people will think I’m rigid and not fun. I’m afraid to feel alone and empty, food is my sole source of pleasure.

Mary: If I am not respected and seen as essential I would be average, I wouldn’t be special.


Experiment With Assumptions

The last step is to create and carry out modest and safe experiments that challenge your assumptions. These experiments are the equivalent of “dipping your toe” into the waters of change. The idea is to gather data that will allow you to successfully challenge your assumptions, little by little.  


Bill: I will eat just one helping, and notice how I feel.

Mary: I will delegate low-value tasks to qualified staff and note what happens. Am I less respected, less special?


Here again, it is easy to slip into the familiar skill set approach, but these experiments are designed to collect data, not to prove your assumptions are wrong. Your experiments will allow you to better understand how accurate your assumptions are and whether your behavior is protecting you or is counter-productive.


You hold your assumptions close and tight. Your assumptions have been with you for a long time. The experiments, collecting data, and practicing your new habit occurs over time, and is best done with a partner or a qualified coach. It is a remarkable process. Your assumptions will start to change, will cease to be in control, and the changes you make as a result will last.  


“And life could just go on that way, except that the system, this anxiety management system you’ve built, charges rent. It’s costing you something. And what does it cost you? It costs you your goal.”
Robert Kegan 

You Gotta Be You-Part III Business Relationships

Self-assertiveness in the workplace benefits both the employer and the employee. I worked for someone who asked me during my interview if I would be honest with him in the event that I disagreed with him. He wanted self-assertive employees; he didn’t want to miss out on valuable feedback and creative initiative. He nurtured an organizational culture that supported self-esteem and the practice of self-assertiveness. Elements of that culture included that it was ok to make a mistake as it was an opportunity to learn, it was safe to disagree with the boss, autonomy was encouraged, and creative problem solving was rewarded. At this point in time, this organization has survived major economic challenges and their culture is one of the factors that enable it to survive.

Here’s some typical answers, gathered by Nathaniel Branden, given to the question, what would you do if you were more self-assertive:

-I’d be more candid.

-I would not drag my feet about declaring bad news.

-If I did not understand, I’d ask questions rather than pretend I knew.

-When I knew something impossible was being asked of me, I’d say so on the spot.

-I’d be more honest about my feelings.

-If someone was not doing the job that was needed, I’d be faster to react and insist on better performance.

-I’d be clear about my expectations and lay them right out there.

-When I knew I had done a good job, I’d make sure my bosses knew about it.

-I wouldn’t be wishy washy about presenting my ideas, I’d stand up for them.

What would you do if you were more self-assertive? What would change for you if you were just 5% more self-assertive?


You Gotta Be You-Part II Personal Relationships

An essential element of lasting intimate relationships is being you, knowing and being known. The temptation to conceal our true selves is often strongest in our relationships with those that we care about the most. We are afraid that revealing parts of ourselves that our partner will not like will end the relationship. In fact, even your mom doesn’t like every single thing about you, but she probably still loves you! For a relationship to survive over the long run, you have to be your authentic self, warts and all. It is also a big hit to your self-esteem to only have the “acceptable” parts of yourself known. Feeling good about yourself requires that your life belongs to you and that you are not basing your behavior on the expectations of others.

You Gotta Be You-Part I

“I gotta be me. I gotta be me. What else could I be if not what I am?”
Steve and Eydie, Tony, Frank, Sammy, Cast of Glee, Alvin and the Chipmunks

The practice of self-assertiveness, of being you, is one of Nathaniel Branden’s six pillars of self-esteem. It is the willingness to stand up for yourself, to be who you are, and to treat yourself with respect. It is not behaving as a tyrant and trampling over other people’s rights or ideas. It is behaving as your authentic self, appropriate to context. Being you is not the same with your family as it is at the workplace, not the same with a young child as it is with an adult.

Being self-assertive is a choice you make, and it can be based on your situation. I attended a party during which the host gave a fortunately short piano concert, accompanying his spouse’s singing. I thought it was pretty awful, but sat through it politely and gratefully applauding at the end. Ever been to a kid’s piano recital? Really, it can be hard to sit through the whole thing, but how do you behave?


Good Stress/Bad Stress

Stress has been characterized as a global epidemic, and it is expensive. Psychologically, stress and overwhelm are driving high rates of depression. Physically, it is estimated that 80% of physical ailments have psychological causes, the prominent one being stress. As for levels of productivity and creativity, beginning in 2008 the #1 reason for missing work is psychological, and that psychological condition is stress.

So what can we do? One possible solution is moving to Tibet and taking up a meditative life. But let’s say you’re ambitious, and you want to remain hardworking, how can you manage stress and avoid the cost?

Studies of those who are successful, hardworking and successful demonstrate that stress can actually be good for you. If you know how to manage it, stress makes you more resilient, and increases your well-being and capacity for joy. In fact, it’s not a problem at all. The problem is LACK OF RECOVERY.

Weight training is a good illustration of the importance of recovery. Lifting weights that are a little too heavy, and cause small muscle tears develops muscle strength. If you then take the time to recover and then lift again your muscles gain strength. If you don’t take the time to recover, your muscle strength is depleted.

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, find that in order to experience “good stress’ work needs to be changed from a marathon to a sprint. Think of what a marathon runner looks like after a race and then think of the appearance of a sprinter. The marathon runner is depleted and exhausted. The sprinter looks strong and powerful.

Loehr and Schwartz found that productivity is increased when work is a sprint followed by a period of recovery. A period of 60 to 120 minutes of hard, focused work followed by a 15 minute plus period of recovery give the body and mind the needed break. This is human nature and you will get more done if you adhere to it. Recovery can be a coffee break, meditation, a session at the gym, lunch, chatting with friends, whatever works for you.

Recovery on larger levels is also needed. It has been demonstrated that people who take time off every week are more productive, as well as those who take vacations. It is also important to remember that real recovery doesn’t include constantly being on the phone with your office, typing away on your laptop on the beach or checking work email every few minutes! When you’re taking the time to recover, allow it to be a genuine break.

Try it! And please let me know how it works out if you do.

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“Ettie is an excellent and inspiring coach! I was so pleased to have such positive outcomes as a result of our meetings. Ettie has a superb ability to listen and offer clear guidance. I highly recommend Ettie to anyone looking for some inspiration and clear techniques to create their own success!”

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