The Assumption Iceberg: A Powerful Model to Ease Difficult Conversations | Plus 5 Conflict Tips

The Assumption Iceberg

Conflict in life is inevitable, whether it's how much we spend on the kids, what solution is chosen at work or returning an appliance to the store. These conflict tips - and the powerful "Assumption Iceberg" may just help your conflicts run a little more smoothly!

What is The Assumption Iceberg?

Conflict is a huge and fascinating topic and the Assumption Iceberg is a simple but powerful concept that you may find useful for both yourself and your clients.

It comes from "The Joy Of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains And Heroes In The Workplace And At Home" by Gary Harper.

So, have you heard the old saying, "We judge ourselves by our intentions - and others by their actions"? It's one of the best conflict tips there is - let's explore.

In a conflict, we know where WE are coming from - our motives and what we intend - and so this is how we judge OUR behaviour. On the other hand, we only experience the IMPACT of the other person's behaviour on us. We make ASSUMPTIONS about their MOTIVES - without knowing what they ACTUALLY intended. This difference is crucial - and of course we tend to make more assumptions (and be more certain about them) when it's our spouse or someone we know well.

It's precisely these assumptions (or mind-reading in NLP speak) that puts us and others on the defensive. When both sides treat these assumptions as 'truth' even though there is no proof it leaves people feeling misunderstood, judged or criticised. It's hard for ANYONE to be reasonable and resolve conflicts from this state of mind.

So, what's the answer? Well the way to move away from assumptions and mind-reading is to keep an open mind and approach the situation using curiosity. And "The Assumption Iceberg" says that while we all see the incident (what is said and done), the vast majority of information is still waiting to be uncovered - hidden beneath the surface, just like an iceberg.

Check out The GROW Model Explained with Coaching Questions, Graphic, Tips and more!

Conflict Tips - we can move away from judging and assuming by asking questions like:

  • "What was the intention behind your action…?"
  • "My intention when I did x was …"
  • "When you did x, I felt …"
  • "How did you feel when I did x…?"

An example of this conversation could look like this:

  • Sally: "What was your intention behind buying that present for the kids?" (clarifying motive)
  • Alan: "It was such a good deal - and there was only one left. I was excited and bought it without thinking." (describing motive)
  • Sally: "So you're saying you did it on the spur of the moment?" (clarifying)
  • Alan: "Yes, it wasn't planned, just a really good deal. I thought you'd be pleased." (confirming and expanding on motive)
  • Sally: "Well, I would have been pleased but I just had a really great idea of a gift for the kids - and now we can't afford both" (describing impact)
  • Alan: "How do you feel?" (understanding impact)
  • Sally: "I feel really disappointed actually." (clarifying impact)

As each person shares more of their perspective it makes the bottom part of the iceberg visible and promotes understanding.

Using these Conflict Tips in a one-on-one Coaching Session:

NOTE: In a session we can ask our client to get into a 'neutral' position and ask what they THINK the other person's intention might have been, and how the other person MIGHT have felt about their behaviour. And while this can raise awareness and help open up their view of the conflict, it's still assumption and guesswork. The best way forwards is for them to have this conversation with the person they are in conflict with.

TOP COACHING TIP: What can however be EXTREMELY useful is to share these conflict tips and role-play the conversation in session. As the coach you can help them practice dealing with anger from the other party (even when they are trying to be open and curious) and as a way to reflect alternate motives and understanding of the impacts of their behaviour.

My Top 5 Conflict Tips to Help Your Conflict Conversations Run Smoothly:

  1. Get CURIOUS. Ask questions, and find out the real motives, needs and concerns behind their actions.
  2. Be PATIENT. Listen and take the time to understand their perspective.
  3. Make the conflict SAFE for the other person. Don't encourage them to share unless you can KEEP listening until they feel you understand their viewpoint
  4. IMPORTANTLY hold their viewpoint as equally valid - and as important as yours.
  5. Keep a calm and OPEN mind. If you're still angry, it may be wise to wait until you're calmer before having the discussion.

Once both people have uncovered the iceberg, finding a resolution is much easier. Then they simply LOOK TOGETHER for answers which meets both person’s needs.

"Understanding and Love are interdependent. Love is made of Understanding and Understanding is made of Love." Thich Nhat Hanh

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Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

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