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Edita Ruzgyte Ph.D.

Facts and Assumptions: What Is the Difference and Does It Matter?

Flirt with hypotheses, but never marry them.

I have been listening to the way my students talk about their cases lately. They would tell me what the intention behind their questions was, and what they were thinking or feeling at a particular point in the session. With the same assurance they would report what was happening with their clients. When I challenged the validity of their statements, some were confused. One student responded to my inquiry with the comment: "It is just so obvious." Another student posted the question: "isn't this what we, as counselors, are supposed to do?"

These responses prompted a discussion about the difference between observations, hypotheses, assumptions, and facts, and what role they play in the session--as well as in people's lives.

Webster's Dictionary presents the following definitions for these terms:

Fact - the assertion or statement of a thing done or existing;
Assumption - the act of taking for granted, or supposing a thing without proof;
Observation - the act or the faculty of observing or taking notice; the act of seeing, or of fixing the mind upon, anything.
Hypothesis - something not proved, but assumed for the purpose of argument, or to account for a fact or an occurrence

Here is an example:
My client was 20 minutes late - a directly observed event - fact;
I feel disappointed - a statement about your own feelings and thoughts - fact;
He looked calm and relaxed when he came in - a comment about another person - observation;
He is being passive-aggressive towards me - a remark about other people's alleged feelings - assumption;
He does not trust my therapeutic skills- a combination of an assumption and an observations - hypothesis.

Just imagine the progression of a therapy session if a therapist entered the room treating all of the above statements as "facts". Depending on how strong the therapist feels about those "facts," I would speculate (I do not know for sure) that there would not be much room to discuss the circumstances of the fact that the client was late. This processing would probably have a negative undertone based on the conviction that a client is being passive-aggressive and he does not like the therapist.

We need to keep reminding ourselves to notice the distinction between facts and assumptions. This will help us be more open to asking questions and having conversations. It is also what we want our individuals and couples to learn. An attentive therapist will observe and bring to a client's attention how they treat their personal assumptions as facts, and how a client starts conflicts attempting to "find the truth" before clarifying the accuracy of their assumptions. Instead of allowing clients to argue about an alleged "truth"-for example, My spouse must not attracted to me because he constantly watches pornography - it would be more therapeutic to focus on the patient's certainty about what their partner's behavior means-and how their partner feels. How does she know? Has she checked her assumption with him? If not, why not; if so, how did she process his answer? How does the partner feel about being told how he feels, and what his behavior supposedly means?

No matter what theoretical approach a therapist uses, we are supposed to observe, create hypotheses, and either present these to clients, or privately note our own ideas and make further observations. When we start treating our assumptions or hypotheses as facts, we stop the process of observation, and therapy simply turns into a conversation between bickering people where each is convinced they know what their partner is feeling or thinking.

Harlene Anderson noted: "Flirt with hypotheses, but never marry them."

As therapists, our job is use facts, hypothesis, observations, and assumptions in our sessions. The art is to know the difference between them, know when to focus on each one, and find a way to process this effectively with clients.


About the Author

Edita Ruzgyte, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of graduate counseling at Texas Wesleyan University.