a couple of years ago

The Words That Bind You…Presupposition


Ever worked in sales?

One of the first techniques you’re taught is the Double Bind or Assumptive Close: a closed-ended question that gives the prospect the illusion of choice.

For example:

  • Will you be paying by cash or card?
  • Would you like to arrange a consultation visit for the morning or afternoon?

The first sentence presupposes (or assumes) that you actually want to pay – never mind whether it’s by cash or card. And the second one presupposes that you are even interested in a consultation; never mind whether it’s in the morning or afternoon! The technique gets the prospect closer to making a buying decision.

While a Double Bind itself is neither good nor bad, it can trigger your thinking and behaviour. Sometimes in a good way (to help you overcome a fear and make a positive change in your life), and sometimes in a bad way (to hurry you along without making an informed decision).

We all use presupposition though – every day and without realising it!

It’s subtle, and sometimes deeply engrained in our social culture. This morning an engineer came around to fix a leaking pipe and I offered, “Would you like tea or coffee?” Perhaps he wasn’t even thirsty, but it got him thinking.

So what if presupposition became a limiting belief? You’d be surprised how you subtly sabotage your own thinking!

Let’s explore…


I’m sure when feminists applaud an “independent woman” it comes with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t do their cause much good.

Is being successful the only way to independence for a woman? Would we celebrate Richard Branson for being an “independent man”?

When a woman is celebrated this way for being hard working and successful, it presupposes that you can only be “independent” (whatever that means) by being successful. And that women who don’t fit this description are somehow not independent. By this twisted logic, men are born with independence and women have to earn theirs.


So, you know that businessman or rock star who worked their way to the top? And now they want to “give back”, right? Perhaps they do this by making charitable donations or developing young talent. A wonderful gesture, but “giving back” presupposes that you took from society earlier in life; that you’re repaying some sort of debt. It diminishes the respect we show for that talent, and the hard work it took to reach the top.

“Paying it forward” however…has the same positive message, doesn’t it? To “pay it forward” is a way we choose to contribute to society.  And we can even “pay it forward” while we are making our way to the top.


Aaah…what would politicians and the media be without presupposition? 😉 They do an equally good job of polarising the news. “The working class” is a subtle example of presupposition. This label refers to lower and middle-income earners in a society, but also implies that:

1) only poor people work

2) wealthy people don’t work, and

3) we should view our society in “classes”

The truth is that the world has many poor people who don’t work. And similarly, there are many wealthy people who work gruelling, 80-hour weeks. So labelling low and middle-income earners as “working class” polarises our society, and adds no value to the conversation.


Believe it or not, this one presupposes failure. Picture a typical conversation between two parents collecting their kids at school:

“So how’s Johnny doing with his violin lessons?”

“Oh, he’s trying.

…yes, trying and failing!

When we fail, we hold up “trying” to soften the disappointment – at least we get top marks for effort, right? What should you do “if at first you don’t succeed…try, try, try again..?”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take up anything new or challenging in life. But reframing your learning experience can replace the presupposition of failure with one of growth. Instead of telling others (and yourself) that you’re just trying tennis, what if you said, “I’m learning / practicing tennis”?

And that you’re working on your serve? Setting a positive frame immediately increases your chances of success.


You seldom vocalise this but as you intensify the focus to reach your goal, this mantra can find its way into your belief system. There’s just one catch – “I’ll be happy once I reach my goal” presupposes that you’re not happy right now. And that you won’t be until you’ve reached your goal.

That’s a bit unfair to your happiness, don’t you think? 😉

It’s awesome to have laser-like focus while persuing your goal, but relying on your achievement to be happy isn’t healthy. Subconsciously, you’re limiting your present happiness and hoping that the future achievement will fulfil you. The truth is that you can be happy now AND pursue your goal with great intensity and passion – and celebrate when you achieve it!


Sometimes we use absolutes to describe a situation e.g. ALWAYS, NEVER, EVER. A sentence like “You never clean the dishes” is riddled with presupposition…

It suggests that:

  • I am the judge of dish cleaning.
  • There have been many dish-cleaning instances in the past.
  • You never had any intention of cleaning the dishes.
  • Invariably, you won’t clean the dishes next time round.
  • We expressly / tacitly agreed that you would clean the dishes. You’re a douche for not following through.
  • You’ve never cleaned even some of the dishes, nor have cleaned some of them and done a poor job. You’ve simply never cleaned any.

It’s not to say that some of these aren’t fact: maybe the fact is we did agree a dish cleaning rota. And over the last 30 meals you haven’t set foot in the kitchen. But as we unravel the presuppositions, so we see the sentence is driven by emotion rather than fact.

Doing the dishes is a trivial example, but amplify this in a heated argument and people say things they later regret. Talking in absolutes distorts facts.

What about using absolutes in internal dialogue – could that be harmful? Telling yourself, “Why do I always mess up?”, “I will never succeed” or “Everyone has it, besides me” causes immense self-harm and can easily lead to a negative self image or depression.

One way to take the sting out of absolutes is by substituting the sentence with words like “sometimes”, “some things” and “someone”.

  • “I always mess up” becomes “Sometimes I mess up” or better, “Sometimes people mess up”
  • “You never do anything” becomes “You don’t do some things”

So how do you eliminate presupposition?

Just like a knife, presupposition poses a risk in some contexts but not in others.You want to be vigilant against presupposition when you find yourself in certain environments:

  • Business Meetings
  • In a Courtroom
  • One on One Disputes
  • Advertising
  • “Sales” Situations
  • Political Broadcasts / Debates
  • Police Interviews

I’m not convinced that anyone would want to dedicate their lives to eliminating presupposition all together. It would mean a complete overhaul and censorship of the way we talk and think. A quick Google search shows that the average person speaks around 150 words per minute, and thinks (in words) around three times as fast. Filtering someone else’s communication AS WELL AS all your own thoughts and speech would be difficult!

But be vigilant of the dangers of presupposition. If you realise that you’re in sensitive territory:

  • Be mindful. Slow down complex conversations by asking questions to clarify.
  • Challenge inaccuracies
  • Discreetly acknowledge and correct these (if appropriate, within the same conversation)

The benefits of fact-based communication can be immediate and far reaching.

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Neil Joubert