By Adam Chan

All Focus programs emphasize on paradigm shifts which set us apart from others. To achieve shifts in paradigm, facilitators need to unlock or removed some cognitive shackles people have in their minds and these shackles are mostly at the subconscious level. It is indeed challenging to achieve. If these shackles are not surfaced through the activities, paradigm shifts are not likely to occur. If you have had uneasy vibes about the participants’ learning is thin or insufficient depth, it may very well be those shackles, providing the resistance to paradigm shifts. One of such shackles being echoed frequently in our programs is assumptions. Understanding how assumptions are related to expectations will certainly augment the program quality.

Something about assumptions; we make assumptions everyday, regardless we are conscious or not about it. Just like plastics are by-products of crude oil, assumptions come with it by-products too. While plastics products are tangible, the by-products created by the process of making assumptions are not. The by-products generated from assumptions are overt behaviors regardless if they are constructive or destructive. While the assumptions are created in our minds, the behaviors representing the assumptions are extraverted over our faces and body which is inevitably evident to a third person.

Changes in Forms

Our feelings hardly remain unchanged, what and how we feel now will change as water changes its form. Changes in feelings also lead to altering in overt behaviors. Commonly we termed the change in overt behavior “expressions”. What gives the impetus to change comes from the external environment but the fundamental driving force is the way we perceived the external environment. Our perception of the environment can be affected by many stimuli like our current situations, the team members, stress level, time available, complexity of task, etc.

In most focus programs, the opening segment includes soliciting for participants’ expectations of the program. Understanding expectations on a deeper level will certainly augment the facilitators’ ability to generate participants’ interest in this topic. Do you know that undisclosed expectations turn into assumptions? You may ask how’s that true? Everyone has a piece of iceberg within. Surely we all can see the tip of the iceberg like we could read body languages and comprehend verbal communication.

pic1Let’s discuss the analogy of a ship dodging icebergs in the ocean. Steering a ship to avoid collision with the tip of the iceberg is easy, however avoiding the subterranean section of the iceberg is not. If steering a ship is like working with team mates than avoiding collision would be to avoiding misunderstanding in the spirit of accomplishing the given tasks. We would know by now it is not exactly visibly straight forward as we might perceive it to be.

The Iceberg model aims to highlight the reciprocating relationships between facts and feelings. It suggests that; Facts level (tangible) and Feelings level (psychosocial). Being aware of both levels, recognizing their reciprocal influence and developing the ability to consider them separately is important.

What lies in our mind is invisible to naked eyes but not indiscernible to a hearing heart. The reciprocating influence between the tip and the subterranean of the iceberg is paramount to understanding what drives our behavior.

Feelings are generated through perceiving of external stimulus from the environment. There are many types of feelings; expectation is one common feeling we have in our heads frequently. Expectations are usually subterranean until disclosure takes place. Primarily there are two ways which expectations are disclosed, i.e. exceeds the expectations or grossly fall short of it. Referring to the iceberg diagram, we can think of expectations as floating just beneath the water line. Its closeness to the water surface may suggest the tendency for prompt disclosure. In this context, disclosure may not be verbally extraverted, it can be disclosed through non-verbally.

An example of verbal extraversion;
A common scene in any offices of buying take-away lunch for colleagues; Mr. X requested to Mr. Y to buy chicken rice as lunch.
Mr. X to Mr. Y, “Could you buy chicken rice for me?”
Mr. Y replied, “White chicken is fine?”
Mr. X said, “I Love It!”
Mr. X waited eagerly for his lunch to come back, thinking of the aroma from the chicken, the rice and the wonderful chili. When Mr. Y returned, he handled the lunch to Mr. X and to his astonishment, there was no chili.
So Mr. X asked, “Where is the chili?”
Mr. Y replied, “I am not aware that you wanted chili?”
Mr. X said, “Come on….. Singaporeans are suckers for chili, you should know that How can chicken rice be eaten without chili!”
Mr. Y rebuked, “Am I supposed to know? Where did you get this wild imagination of Singaporeans and chili?”
The conversation continues …. Don’t we already know where this is leading to?
Expectations from Mr. X regarding having chili was not disclosed to Mr. Y prior to buying the chicken rice. As a result, Mr. X assumed that Mr. Y will request for chili to be added to the chicken rice. However the outcome did not meet Mr. X’s undisclosed expectation hence the impending brawl between them erupted. Mr. X expressed his expectations by generalizing Singaporeans’ liking for chili. Not only the expression fails to convince, it leads to a brawl between them. It is easy to guess that the brawl leads to unpleasant feelings between them. We could see now how feelings can alter its form like how undisclosed expectations turn into assumptions. We also know that facts and feelings has reciprocating influence, in the case of Mr. X and Y, Mr. X’s behavior turned unfriendly when his undisclosed expectations turned into assumptions (stereotyping chili as Singaporean’s undisputed garnishing for chicken rice). With change in feelings (undisclosed expectations to assumptions), the facts (cordial to unfriendly) have radically altered but not surprising though. This is where the reciprocation lies. As they continue to argue, the reciprocating effects of the feelings and facts continue to strengthen each other, in this case, unpleasantly strengthened.

Sometimes, this unmet expectations can be intentionally suppressed and remaining dormant inside. The reasons for suppression can be political, convenience’s sake, situational, personal, etc. We can examine the reasons in later sections. What is important to know is the suppression demands for the feelings of unmet expectations to change form otherwise it must be expressed verbally. In this case, unmet expectations due to suppression turned into hidden disappointment or frustration. With no surprise, one can easily sense from the non-verbal cues a.k.a. body languages that someone is frustrated or disappointed.

Invariably, expressions of satisfied expectations can come forth spontaneously too. A customer who experienced a wonderful stay in a hotel could easily express his or her satisfaction. It is not unusual for people to not express themselves when their expectations are met as to some, meeting expectations is a given. The caveat to this is taking things around us for granted.

In the next sections, we will examine in details what goes into assumptions.

Assumptions under Microscope

We may be curious of what goes into assumption. The most common question will be why we make assumptions.

Our five senses take in far more information about our daily activities and associations than our brains can process, so we take “mental shortcuts” to simplify the information and make sense of it, especially in times of stress. Commonly these mental shortcuts are what we know as assumptions. Specifically, we make assumptions because of

1. Stereotyping -
mostly influenced by social norms and conventions that have extensive history or anecdotes to support its existence. E.g. men are more superior to women because they are physically stronger.
2. Innate defensive mechanism -
in times of disagreement, it is usual for people to establish their defensive mechanisms as protection or prevention of any forms of emotional discomfort to set in. E.g. “I thought you said it was supposed to be done this way, now you’re changing your mind?”
3. Facilitate in decision-making -
more than often we have to make decision to keep things going. It is also common to possess insufficient information to do so. As such assumptions are made to facilitate the process. E.g. without any confirmation or reply from the client, let’s take it that they agree with this set of conditions.
4. As boundary conditions for researches -
when researching into unexplored territory, researchers will set up boundary conditions to limit the scope of the research for it to be relevant, practical and possible. Those boundary conditions are assumptions made by the researchers.

The above is not exhaustive; do remember that our brains are so complex for any one unified theory to envelope. These shortcuts are automatic and largely subconscious. They trap us into drawing conclusions prematurely, hence the name “thinking traps”. We will cover thinking traps shortly.

While we are familiar with this famous quote of “Failure is the mother of successes”, we seldom heard of “Assumption is the mother of failures (screw-up)” right? There is one too many relationships being mauled by assumptions, be it a matrimonial one, a family one, a social one or a commercial one. With the split of any two parties, assumptions will always play a part in some ways.

The term “thinking trap” is used mostly by psychologists or academics to peel the onions of assumptions. Since we make assumptions most of the time, wouldn’t that make us the expert in handling assumptions? It more likely we are experts in making assumptions rather then handling them. We know that assumptions are representations of mental shortcuts. The shortcuts are automatic and subconscious too. This implies we have little or no control over them which clearly dethrones us from being the experts in handling them.

We can easily imagine that assumptions are of many different types although they all possess a unified purpose, i.e. restraining us from having accurate and flexible thinking. Hence it leads to misaligned actions and let alone the desirable results.

In the next section, we will discuss the conceivable thinking traps coined from the studies done over years by psychologists.

Thinking Traps

What are some of the common thinking traps we are most inclined to fall into? While there eight listed below we tend to fall in two or three. Sometimes even a combination of the two or three.

Cognitive science suggests that we have a strong bias when we process information. We tend to use only the information that supports the beliefs we already hold about a situation, and we filter out information that does not support our beliefs. This is called “confirmation bias.” Our confirmation bias can stop us from using accurate and flexible thinking to assess situations, causing us to draw conclusions with less information than we need. It is with accurate and flexible thinking it helps us bounce back from stress and adversity.

The eight thinking traps are used by two cognitive psychologists by the name of K. Reivich and A. Shatté, Listed below are eight thinking traps in summary from the great details both have given to each thinking trap in the book titled The Resilience Factor authored by both in Chapter 5.

1) Jumping to conclusions: We make an assumption about a person or situation, with little or no evidence to back it up. All thinking traps involve jumping to conclusions in one way or another.

2) Personalizing: We assume blame for problems or situations for which we are not primarily responsible. When done habitually, it can lead to a loss of self-worth, and excessive experiencing sadness and guilt.

3) Externalizing: We erroneously blame others for situations for which they are not primarily responsible. When externalizing becomes a habit it can result in anger and relationship problems.

4) Mind-reading:
We assume that we know what others are thinking without checking with them. Or, we expect others to know what we are thinking without telling them. One example of falling into the mind-reading trap is concluding that people have been talking about us when they fall silent as we enter the room. Or, we might think that our significant other should know that we’re “too tired to go out tonight” despite the fact we haven’t told him/her. Mind-reading can be at the core of many difficulties in both our professional and personal relationships because it involves making assumptions about who is to blame for situations.

5) Emotional reasoning: We make false conclusions about an experience based on how we feel rather than on the facts. For example, after a long, difficult conversation with a friend, we might feel relieved that we’ve resolved a problem between us. However, our feelings of relief may color our perception of the actual conversation. Thus, we may end up feeling surprised and dejected when our friend tells us that s/he remains dissatisfied with the relationship. For instance, if we already feel down or sad, we may assume that we are at fault for a situation. If we are tense and angry, it is more likely we would see others at fault. Emotional reasoning is also related to “shoulding”— the expectations about what we or others should or shouldn’t do. “Shoulding” directed at ourselves can make us feel miserable, lead to procrastination, and take the joy out of life. Directed at others, it can lead to labeling and stereotyping.

6) Overgeneralizing: We make sweeping judgments about someone or something based on only one or two experiences. For example, we might believe that something can’t be done because of a single difficulty or failure in the past. Alternatively, we might view a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Overgeneralizing can lead to an overly harsh view of ourselves and others, stereotyping, and discrimination. We might judge a whole group of people based on our experiences with a few.

7) Magnifying/minimizing: We overemphasize certain aspects of a situation and shrink the importance of other aspects. Some of us magnify the negative and minimize the positive. We do this by exaggerating the importance of our own or others’ mistakes, or by making “mountains out of molehills.” This can cause us to feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or angry. Others magnify the positive and minimize the negative. We ignore the negative aspects to maintain a positive spin on a situation. This can lead to self-deception, which prevents us from dealing with situations that require attention. We might also overemphasize the positive contributions we make, while minimizing the efforts of others.

8) Catastrophizing: We assume something bad is going to happen, or we exaggerate how bad a situation will be. This involves linking a series of negative thinking traps, such as magnifying/minimizing, overgeneralizing, etc. For example, when we don’t get the promotion we apply for, we begin to imagine the worse case scenario: The fact that I didn’t get a promotion means that my supervisor doesn’t like me. And that means that I’ll never get promoted at work. And that means I’ll be stuck at the bottom of the pay scale. And that means I’ll never get my own apartment. And that means I’ll always have to live with family. And that means….

Can you identify which thinking trap Mr. X fall into?


We have discussed the reciprocating influences between facts and feelings; each exercising its influence to alter the form of the other. This is illustrated in the chicken rice anecdote when undisclosed expectations turned into assumptions and that leads to a change in overt behaviors between Mr. X & Y. The use of an iceberg as analogy suggested that feelings are subterranean and facts represent the overt behaviors.

Examining assumptions we have suggested few reasons why people make assumptions in general. From the psychologists’ perspective assumptions are caused by the automatic and subconscious attempt to simplify the mammoth information bombarding us daily that results in creating mental shortcuts hence drawing conclusions on issues with much less information than they truly deserve which robs us from being flexible and accurate in our thinking.

The eight thinking traps are expounded from the term assumptions. All conceivable types of assumptions are enveloped by these eight. Having this awareness, the facilitator will certainly be more discerning in observing participants’ overt behavior that connects to relevant learning outcomes. In the personal capacity, avoiding the thinking traps means having more flexible and accurate thinking which will augment a quality attribute, resilience.