Change the conversation. Change the results.

Learning Conversation Guideline 3:  Suspend Certainty

Any conversation with a purpose, from formal meetings to classroom or family discussions, will benefit from some basic ground rules. The first two, listen “Deeply for Understanding” and “Speak from the Heart," rely on the third, “Suspend Certainty."  And, suspending certainty only works with a commitment to following the first two guidelines.

Suspending certainty means suspending our assumptions. It does not mean that we give up our opinions or beliefs; it means that we merely put them on hold for the sake of the conversation. 

As physicist David Bohm describes it, we suspend the assumptions before us, like a ball suspended from the ceiling that hangs just in our line of vision.

Suspending certainty means suspending our assumptions. It does not mean that we give up our opinions or beliefs; it means that we merely put them on hold for the sake of the conversation.

We must suspend any certainty that we have the answer, that we know the result or that we are the expert. Like “Listening Deeply for Understanding," this is a skill that requires practice, largely because how we define ourselves is often tied to rigid belief systems, which can be so deeply rooted within us that we are unaware of their influence on our thoughts and actions.

These self-generating beliefs are beliefs that remain largely untested. They often inform how we react to others, sometimes not even at a conscious level, but in our body language and tone.

We adopt these beliefs because they are based on conclusions; however, those conclusions are inferred from what we observe and understand through the personal lens of our attitudes, beliefs, biases and assumptions (ABBAs).

We tacitly register some data and ignore other data. We don’t realize we are making interpretations. Our conclusions feel obvious, so we see no need to test our views. We see data that confirms our perspective and miss data that does not.

When we take ideas and information for granted as obvious, we overlook the fact that many critical pieces of information are not available to us, such as someone’s true feelings or intentions, as well as events that are forgotten or undisclosed. We also overlook the fact that we do not work with complete information in any given situation. Therefore, we are unaware of the fact that we cannot operate with complete certainty.

All decisions are made with either incomplete or inaccurate information.

What can we do to suspend certainty and sustain safe space throughout a conversation?

•    Explain and test our views and assumptions.
•    Probe participants’ thinking with high-quality questions.
•    Develop a shared understanding of differences.


When facilitating discussions with differing opinions, we can be aware of and use language that will expand the conversation and enable participants to clarify and discuss their thinking in a nonthreatening way. This is language doesn’t create barriers or cause hurt feelings and limit or close the conversation down.

We can ask questions that don’t lead toward your own conclusion.  They are open-ended questions and support safe space and sharing of diverse opinions, doubts and concerns. 

Examples of quality questions are listed below.

•    Instead of “Don’t you agree?”, ask “In what ways is your view different?”
•    Instead of “Do others feel that way, too?”, ask “Does anyone see that the same or differently?”
•    Instead of “Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”, ask “What’s your reaction to what I am trying to say?”
•    Instead of “Did you do that because of X?”, ask “What led you to that thinking or conclusion?”
•    Instead of “Why don’t you just try what I am suggesting?”, ask “What about this idea raises doubts for you?”
•    Instead of “Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind?”, ask “What prevented you from sharing that information with me?”


It is essential for everyone to realize that their inferences and decisions are not set in stone. Their inferences and decisions can change and evolve based on new data that becomes available to them. In other words, the decisions represent their “best thinking in the moment”. They—and you—should feel comfortable and even encouraged to change your minds over the course of learning during the conversation, or over several conversations.

Contact us to learn more about the “5 Guidelines for Learning Conversations” and how we can help you and your team improve the quality of conversations to achieve quality results. 

© 1996 - 2019  Jorgensen Learning Center

Landrum, South Carolina | United States


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