Challenging Negative Assumptions

Susan admitted that she had a habit of anticipating negative outcomes. When discussing projects with other members of her department, Susan would point out everything that could go wrong. Even when she worked independently on a task, her mind would drift to a worse-case scenario: the software won’t work; my ideas will be rejected. As a result, her motivation waned and she would procrastinate … causing others to be annoyed when she missed deadlines.

Robert experienced the same problem as he readied himself for a job search. Whenever he thought about interviewing, his mind locked in on negatives. This created so much anxiety that he would distract himself by playing video games. As the weeks wore on he became more and more frustrated.

Susan and Robert treated their assumptions as facts. They presumed that the negative outcomes they imagined would actually happen. This led to discouragement and lack of constructive action.

The Possible, Probable, and Unlikely test is a way to challenge the negative thinking and for these individuals to view their situations in a more realistic way. Here’s how it works:

  • Write down the negative assumption.
  • Ask yourself, “Is it possible that this could happen?”
  • If the answer is yes, then ask, “How probable is it to occur?”
  • If the outcome is likely to happen, ask, “How can I prepare for a better outcome?”
  • If the outcome is unlikely to happen, ask, “What do I need to focus on instead?”

This example shows how Robert used this tool to challenge his assumption about interviewing:

  • Negative assumption: I will say one wrong thing and not be offered the job.
  • Is it possible that this could happen? Yes, there is a possibility that I could misunderstand a question, or speak before thinking through my answer. It could turn off an employer.
  • How probable is it to occur? Fifty-fifty. Recently I have been practicing responses to questions, so I’m not as nervous.
  • How can I prepare for a better outcome? Continue practicing as part of my weekly job search plan. If I’m asked a question that I didn’t anticipate, request a minute to think about my answer. If I am confused, ask that the question be phrased in a different way.

Here is how Susan challenged an assumption about her ideas:

  • Negative assumption: No one will like my idea, so why bother trying?
  • Is it possible that this could happen? Yes, other people may not agree with my vision.
  • How probable is it to occur? Unlikely, because I’ve developed expertise in this area, and the last four times that I shared an idea, everyone liked it.
  • What do I need to focus on instead? Writing the proposal.

If you have a habit of expecting the worst, try challenging your thinking. You might very well shift your perspective, and work more effectively toward your goals.

Copyright 2019, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching

By Christina Moreschi
Christina Moreschi Assistant Director of Career Development Christina Moreschi