The treachery of assumptions

There’s a painting by Rene Magritte that you’ve probably seen before but you may not know its name:



It’s called The Treachery of Images. When we first see the painting and read the words ‘this is not a pipe’, our first thought might be ‘well, it looks like a pipe to me.’ Perhaps we think ‘if it’s not a pipe, what is it?’ When asked about it, Magritte replied:

‘The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!’

So it’s not a pipe, it’s an image of a pipe. Of course, when we think about it, we realise it’s not actually a pipe but our first assumption is ‘yes, it is a pipe’.

You may be wondering ‘what has all this got to do with coaching?’

A client – let’s call him Joseph – and I were discussing a tricky situation he’d had with a colleague recently.

‘I don’t really know Carolyn that well because she’s based in our other office but we sat next to each other at the company conference a month or so ago and had an interesting discussion about an idea I had which would involve her department. She had to dash to catch her train at the end of the day but she said she’d e-mail me to set up a meeting to discuss it further.

It was a really hectic time at work so it slipped my mind but then a couple of weeks ago, I was walking through reception and Carolyn was coming into the building with the Chief Exec. I raised my hand in greeting and started to speak but she looked straight through me! I felt like a right idiot. She’s obviously decided my idea’s not worth her time and so she’s just not bothering with me.’

Do you know that?’ I asked.

‘Do I know what?’

‘Do you know that she thinks your idea’s not worth her time and therefore she’s not bothering to get in touch with you?’

‘Well, no, I don’t know for sure. It’s an assumption, I guess,’ replied Joseph, slowly.

‘How important is this idea to you?’

‘The project idea? Well, I think it could really make a difference to the business so it’s pretty important,’ he answered.

‘In that case, are you prepared to test out your assumption and find out what Carolyn really thinks?’ I asked him.

We agreed that Joseph would call Carolyn, say that he was sorry they’d not had the opportunity to speak when she was in Head Office last week and ask whether she still thought it would be a good idea to get together to discuss his idea. He called me a week later.

‘The Chief Exec had got off the same train as her and was giving her a bit of a grilling over a report she’d submitted. She said she was so preoccupied with his questions that she didn’t even see me in reception. We had a video call on Monday: it went really well and we’ve submitted a proposal to the board based on my idea.’

Joseph’s experience demonstrated how we can sometimes misinterpret what we see.

Today’s pebble for you to think about: how will you make sure you’re not relying on assumptions instead of facts?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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2 Responses to The treachery of assumptions

  1. Sara says:

    Dear Michelle

    Thank you for continuing to send us your inspiring messages. They are always thought provoking and relevant – the best blog I follow for coaching! Also thank you for sending us through your 7 Steps book. I haven’t done it myself yet but plan to and will use it with others that I coach.

    Many thanks

    Sara (Willis) >

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