Using Belief and Doubt to Identify and Challenge Assumptions

In developing the Habits, we recognized that identifying and challenging assumptions were essential to lawyering based on fact and to building the attorney client relationship. As we worked with the Habits, Jean began to work on concepts of doubt and belief as another entry point into exploring our assumptions and challenging them. Jean was first introduced by her collaborator, Mark Weisberg to these concepts through the techniques of Methodological Belief and Methodological Doubt. She and Mark worked on presentations, retreats, and a book about teaching. In a number of settings, Jean, first with Mark, then with Sue, has since extended the use of these concepts of belief and doubt to legal teaching and practice by exploring Belief and Doubt at Rest and Belief and Doubt in Motion.

These three techniques for exploring belief and doubt: At Rest, In Motion and Methodological are briefly described below along with ideas for teaching the three techniques. Each of these techniques along with teaching ideas are explained in detail in separate pages linked to this page. These pages explore how these techniques are useful cross-cultural tools for surfacing and examining assumptions, and as teaching tools for talking about race, which can be used by lawyers, clinical teachers, and clinical students.

Doubt and Belief at Rest seeks to identify or evaluate natural or spontaneous belief and doubt. Using this technique, students are asked to pay attention and record their level of belief and doubt of a particular idea or story as it is occurring, or they are hearing about it. Students are encouraged to share and compare with others their levels of belief and doubt and explore why they believe or doubt at those levels. Using this technique, students can be taught that concepts of credibility are very culturally determined. In examining the credibility of a story, lawyers and judges often ask whether the story makes “sense” as if “sense” were neutral. As students explore their colleagues’ different reactions, they can examine the assumptions that led them to their At Rest point.

Doubt and Belief in Motion takes the student from At Rest to exploring how levels of Doubt and Belief may change or not as new information becomes available. This technique asks the student to pay attention as new information is revealed to what might cause their initial assessment to change. This technique can also be used in groups to illustrate the different reactions people have to the same information. One person may move to a position of greater belief while another may stay firmly located on the doubting end of the spectrum.

Methodological Belief and Methodological Doubt, first developed by Peter Elbow to engage his students in English Literature and writing classes class, seeks to engage students in a disciple, systematic process of believing or doubting everything, systematically to uncover ideas that might not have been uncovered. Once students have identified their At Rest positions or their In Motion positions, students can be asked to challenge their positions with Methodological Belief or Methodological Doubt. By asking the doubting mind to believe, or the believing mind to doubt, the lawyer can identify assumptions which might be contributing to spontaneous doubt and belief, as well as expand her understanding of those who assess credibility differently than she does.

Teaching the Three Techniques

We usually introduce these three techniques along with the Habits or in a class on Challenging Assumptions relatively early in the semester as we want the students to be able to use the techniques in their casework and with us in supervision. Typically, we will introduce all three together through the use of a hypothetical that we use teach all three. In the In Motion page we describe in detail a hypothetical that we have used successfully in trainings and class to teach these three techniques. A power point that reveals the story for the In Motion technique is available.

In her training of Asylum officers, Jean uses another hypothetical to introduce the Asylum officers all three techniques. The hypo can be found in the Doubting and Believing power point.

To teach Doubt and Belief at Rest, we generally start by giving the students a short summary of facts from a hypothetical to explore their spontaneous reactions and assumptions that cause those. Then we begin to add facts and ask students to use the Doubt and Belief in Motion technique to measure and learn from their changing belief or doubt levels. Finally, we ask students to challenge their positions with Methodological Belief and Methodological Doubt. The Doubting and Believing power point illustrate this progression.