The power of presuppositions

Main image

I was standing at the checkout of a well-known supermarket. A member of staff, who was not working that day, was in the queue ahead of me. After the initial hello and how are you with her colleague on the checkout, the conversation went something like this:

Did you see that queue at till five yesterday?

No but I heard about it! What happened?

It was like this, right. We were so quiet that Mike closed two tills and sent me and Jason to do shelves. That left Jane on the till and you know what's going to happen.

Pause for mutual groan and eye roll.

Well, we was getting on, like you do, not a care in the world. Suddenly this customer says there's a queue at till five. Well! Queue? It went all the way back up the aisle!

And what was she doing?

Oh, putting the stuff through without a care in the world. No thought about calling for another till or two to be opened! Jason and I were that mad with her. You know what she's like.

Just that silly laugh?

That's the one. I tell you, she's going to do that once too often around me and I'll be giving her a piece of my mind, I don't mind telling you.

Not a clue!

That's right. Well, I'm off. See ya.

A small exchange that, with a change of scenario, could have been the topic of conversation in any school, college or workplace. Notice that the presumption, the one that brings the two speakers into alignment, is that the person being talked about is in some way wilfully incompetent and that her actions had the intention of burdening her colleagues. Similar presumptions, or presuppositions, might be that the person is lazy, inconsiderate, self-centred or doesn't listen. With those presuppositions in place every action is viewed through that lens.

Stephen Covey told a lovely story that illustrated the same point. He said that he had been sitting on a train when a man got on accompanied by several children. The man sat, staring into space, ignoring the fact that his children were charging around the carriage, making a noise that distracted every passenger except him. Eventually, Stephen felt that something needed to be done, so he leaned over to the man and asked him if he had noticed the behaviour of his children. The man shook himself out of his trance and registered how the children were behaving. He turned to Stephen and apologised, saying that they didn't really know what to do with themselves, and neither did he, as they had just come from the hospital where their mother had died. Now that bit of information certainly changes the way that the behaviour was understood doesn't it?

NLP involves some presuppositions that are central to understanding how and why we behave the way that we do. One of those presuppositions is that everyone acts with a positive intention. We might not be able to discern it, indeed they might not be able to, but that positive intention is there.

Adopting the belief that everyone is acting with a positive intention completely reframes our understanding of their actions.

Suppose the two supermarket workers acted on the presumption that their colleague was too shy to ask for help, didn't want to burden her fellow workers with extra work, or wanted to do the best job that she could do on her own. How would that have changed the nature of their conversation and judgements? In dealing with others try to adopt the presupposition that they are acting with a positive intention. It doesn't mean condoning poor behaviour or performance but it will go a long way towards generating a more constructive approach to dealing with it.

Back To Blog