How To Dispute Faulty Assumptions — And Be An Inspiring Coach

11 Sep 2018

How To Dispute Faulty Assumptions — And Be An Inspiring Coach

Do you have an official designation as ‘coach’?

Even if your answer is ‘no’, I bet you still help clients, friends, colleagues or members of your team to resolve challenges or see things in more useful ways from time to time? Yes?

Then read on to discover how you can be more effective by gently disputing the assumptions that keep people stuck.

How To Dispute Faulty Assumptions — And Be An Inspiring Coach

What makes an inspiring coach?

When I’ve asked people this question, they usually respond with; ‘non-judgemental’, ‘good listener’, ‘asks good questions’, ‘doesn’t tell me what to do’, ‘gives me space and time’. Yet sometimes, we might do the opposite of those things in our quest to help. So how can you be the inspiring coach that everyone holds in high esteem?

It starts with being a good listener.

Whenever we talk to people, we leave out a lot of the detail.

It is important to understand this, because it’s often in the detail that the real issues reside.

Let’s imagine that you did something really exciting this last weekend. On Monday people asked you how your weekend was. Most of us like to stick to the more exciting bits of our life, so you probably related a couple of incidents and otherwise gave an overview of your weekend. If you were to relate all the details of your experiences; for example, what you saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelt and said to yourself, then you’d have no time for new experiences— or friends to hear about them!

The majority of the time this summary is fine. But if you have a problem, or someone you know is experiencing an issue, it can be well worth the effort to get beyond the superficial level of the language we use, to challenge the assumptions that become evident in what people say.

Every sentence contains some kind of assumption

An assumption — also called a presupposition — is a linguistic term that designates something that needs to be assumed, supposed in advance or taken for granted in order for a sentence to make sense. Even in the most simple sentence there can be quite a lot that needs to be assumed so as to make sense of the communication.

Here are a couple of simple examples:

“I really regret making that decision now because it caused a rift between us.”

It needs to be assumed that:

  • The person has made a decision.
  • The decision is in the past. (You can’t regret something in the future)
  • The person regrets the decision in hindsight.
  • The person associates the decision with the rift between him/her and someone else.
  • A rift between them is not something that was desired.

“If she fails her maths exam again, she won’t be able to get the job she wants.”

So what are the assumptions in this sentence?

  • She’s female
  • She’s already taken the maths exam previously.
  • She’s failed the exam at least once before.
  • She wants a particular job.
  • The job she wants involves a pass in maths.
  • The timing of her passing the exam is critical to getting the job.

Let’s play with another example:

“If my parrot keeps screaming I’ll have to cover him up.”

The assumptions are:

  • There is a parrot.
  • The parrot belongs to the person talking.
  • It’s a male parrot.
  • He’s screaming.
  • He has been screaming for some time.
  • He’s uncovered at present.
  • Covering him up will stop him screaming or the person will no longer be able to hear him.
OK – I’m sure you get the idea now about just how much information can be contained in a sentence!

This aspect of language is completely fascinating

But why is it useful?

Identifying the assumptions or presuppositions often leads to some very interesting discoveries.

When you investigate the underlying structure of a person’s language, it literally tells you how they’re constructing their ‘map’ of the world — or their reality.

You can then help a person gain valuable insight by questioning some of their underlying assumptions, where this might be useful.

Here is an illustration of how this might work:

Woman: “If he loved me he’d hold my hand when we go out.”

holding hands


  • He only loves her if he holds her hand when they go out.
  • He doesn’t hold her hand when they go out.
  • Love is conditional on holding hands when they go out.
  • He doesn’t hold her hand, therefore he doesn’t love her.
  • Hand holding equates to love.

Saying, ‘This is plainly nonsense!’ out loud will not only get you out of rapport with the woman, but is also likely to solidify her point of view as she defends her stance. So it would be more useful to question the belief structure underlying her language which could lead her gently to some discoveries.

Here’s the sentence again:

“If he loved me he’d hold my hand when we go out.”

Here are some questions you could ask to shake the foundations of that belief
  • “How does him not holding your hand mean he doesn’t love you?”
  • “Have you ever held someone’s hand when you didn’t love them?”
  • “Have you ever not held his hand and still loved him?”
  • “Is it possible to love someone without holding their hand?”
  • “If you go out with someone for the first time and hold hands, does that mean you’re in love?”

Pick one and ask, very gently, giving the person you’re coaching time to ponder the question. Then, depending on their response, maybe choose another.

You can probably see that in challenging the structure of a person’s thinking, you enable them to uncover beliefs and discover new perspectives about their issue.

Being able to identify these assumptions takes practice

If you’re keen to pursue this further, begin by asking yourself, as you’re listening to someone, “what needs to be true or assumed for this sentence to make sense?” Just by exploring this, you’ll be amazed at what you discover — including how truly vague humans can be! If this level of coaching appeals to you, join us on the next NLP Practitioner Certification Training. It’s just one of the many skills you’ll learn that will help you be a better coach.

The beauty of this kind of quirky questioning is that you don’t force your opinions on the other person, you allow them to come to their own conclusions and make their own decisions. Used often enough, and at a more generative level, it encourages the person to challenge their own thinking and beliefs so that, ultimately, they need less coaching and become independently capable of resolving their own difficulties. And isn’t that what being an inspiring coach is really about?