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Iroquois Rule of Six


The idea for this Pattern comes from the work of Paula Underwood who was the designated storyteller for her branch of the Iroquois (See references below). Of course, even she would not claim to have invented the pattern which grew out of long cultural experience.

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas on February 2, 2018


Don’t Jump to Conclusions, Sympathetic Reading, Give Others the “Benefit of a Doubt,” “Look before you leap!” “See the Whole Elephant”


Human beings are very complex and we only see snippets of someone else’s behavior. Yet, we are trained that it is important to quickly interpret why someone else is doing something. By the time we’re adults, when someone does something that violates our expectations, we tend to come up with an “explanation” very quickly. Furthermore, we tend to treat this explanation or interpretation as fact when, in many cases, we have only a very small amount of actual data to depend on. A misinterpretation of someone’s motivation can quickly cause bad feelings on everyone’s part. Therefore, according to the Iroquois “Rule of Six,” before you act on the basis of your initial interpretation, you are advised to think of at least five other interpretations and try to gain evidence about these six or more hypotheses before taking action.


Groups function better under a wide variety of circumstances if there is a high degree of internal mutual trust. If people work together over a long period of time, trust will develop if warranted. While we sometimes know some of what’s going on in someone else’s life, we only know a very small proportion of what is going on, even if it’s someone we are very close to and spend a lot of time with. In work groups or teams, the proportion of the whole of someone else’s situation that we see is very small indeed. This is even more true when we are trying to work in a new or ad hoc group. We feel it’s important to understand the motivations of others and what they are likely to do. Often, we therefore jump to conclusions about others that are far from the truth. When we act on such incorrect premises, it can derail progress toward solving a problem and damage trust and relationships for the future as well.


Complex problems and large problems can often only be solved by groups. For the group to work well together to solve ill-defined or wicked problems, it is useful for them to understand each other’s situations and motivations. We generally come to expect others to do certain things based on logic, authority, agreement, trust, the current situation and other factors. In fact, it’s often hard to understand even our own motivations or to predict what we ourselves will do in novel situations.

People are often in a hurry to make progress on solving problems. Thus, when someone does appear to violate our expectations, we are tempted to come up with a “reason” for their behavior. However, because people are complex and situations that require cooperation and coordination are also complex, we seldom actually know why a person does something. There are things about them that we may be unaware of such as their physiological state (e.g., tired, sick, on drugs, low blood sugar). There are also things about their situation that we are unlikely to know about (e.g., time pressure, lack of appropriate training, unusual experiences, knowledge beyond our ken).

People find it very difficult to operate in a sea of ambiguity and therefore seek to find explanations and clarity very quickly. Unfortunately, people therefore tend to jump to a conclusion about someone else and that conclusion can then blind them to further information about that person, particularly when the new information is at odds with the initial impression.



  • Everyone comes to expect certain forms of behavior from others in a specific context.
  • The expectations of any one person are primarily based on their own experiences.
  • The behavior of any other person is largely based on that person’s experiences.
  • The behavior of another person can also be heavily influenced by that other person’s situation.
  • Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation.
  • When faced with another person’s violation of expectations, people tend to quickly generate an explanation of why that person did what they did.
  • Because of “confirmation bias,” once a person comes up with an explanation of anything (including why someone did something), they tend to look for evidence to support their initial explanation.


When a person comes up with an explanation of someone else’s behavior, they should generate at least five other hypotheses and then seek evidence for and against all six hypotheses before taking action.


1. A babysitter is put in charge of an infant. The baby cries and the babysitter assumes it is hungry and feeds it. Yet, the baby keeps crying. The babysitter assumes it is still hungry and tries to feed it more but the baby refuses food and keeps crying any way. She tries a variety of foods but the baby doesn’t seem to like any of them. Rather than assuming that the baby is hungry and keep trying to find a food the baby will like, according to the Iroquois Rule of Six, the sitter might consider other hypotheses; e.g, the baby might have gas, have a wet diaper, be sick, miss her parents, or (as was actually the case) have a diaper pin stuck through her skin.

2. You have an important project meeting with Jerry Jones on your calendar for 10 am in room 435. You are sitting at the table but Jerry Jones is nowhere to be seen. The clock on the wall says 10:10. Still no Jerry Jones. You think to yourself, “Well, okay, fine. Obviously, Jerry doesn’t really care about this project.”

That kind of thought is a normal human reaction. Unfortunately, once the thought occurs to you, it is easy to now treat your interpretation of events as a fact about Jerry’s commitment to the project.

The Iroquois recognized this tendency and the “Rule of Six” suggests that before taking any action, you should first generate at least six interpretations, not just one. In this particular hypothetical case, several come to mind.

  1. Jerry doesn’t care about the project so he’s not coming or doesn’t care how late he is.
  2. Jerry comes from a culture where 10:10 is not actually late for a 10 am meeting.
  3. Jerry was unattainably delayed.
  4. You wrote down the wrong room for the meeting.
  5. You are not actually in room 435.
  6. You are in room 435 but in the wrong building.
  7. You wrote down the wrong time.
  8. The clock on the wall is wrong.
  9. You wrote down the wrong day for the meeting.
  10. 10. Jerry sent you email asking to change the meeting time but you didn’t check your email.

3. You and your tennis doubles partner are in a crucial match. Your partner keeps serving up weak second serves and your opponents both keep running around their backhands and zinging heavy forehand shots at your body. You’ve already been hit twice because you cannot react quickly enough even to defend yourself. You conclude that your partner must be trying to get you killed and you tell them so. In this case, despite your interpretation, it seems exceedingly unlikely that your partner is literally trying to get you killed. If they are, this is a singularly ineffective way to do it. In fact, despite your having said this to your partner, it’s unlikely you really even believe it yourself. But even thinking this may have several bad effects. First, having told your partner this is bound to make them trust you less. Second, it will make your partner more up-tight and probably make an even worse serve or double fault more likely. Third, it prevents you from finding out what might really be going on. For some odd reason, even though you know in your heart that it is not a likely explanation, the mere having of the thought (and even more so telling your partner) actually makes it less likely that you will try to find more reasonable interpretations. Fourth, it keeps you from working with your partner to find a solution. Other (and, in this case, much more likely partial explanations) include:

  1. Your partner wants to avoid having you hit at the net so badly that they keep trying to hit an ace on their first serve.
  2. Your partner wants to avoid a double fault at all costs so “powder puffs” their second serve.
  3. Your partner has a sore shoulder.
  4. Your partner thinks your opponents like pace and that a slow serve will throw off their timing.
  5. Your partner thinks your opponents are overhitting the returns of their second serves and that the balls would fly way long if you would just duck or get out of the way.
  6. Your partner knows that you want to improve your net game and thinks you will enjoy the challenge of hard hit balls and eventually improve your net game.
  7. Your partner is really being bothered by the sun right now and is finding serving very difficult because, no matter how they try their toss is right in the sun.
  8. Your partner knows that you want both of you to be at net as soon as possible and is therefore concentrating to hard on rushing the net that they are not paying enough attention to first finishing the service motion itself before charging to the net.

In this tennis example, imagining your partner wants to kill you does not suggest any appropriate action to fix the problem. Possible actions that might help you win the tennis match could include getting your partner to hit a slightly less aggressive first serve and a slightly more aggressive second serve, making sure that they know that even thought it’s obviously not desirable to double fault, it’s not the world’s greatest sin either; asking your partner if they are okay physically and if not, coming up with a different plan; playing back on the second serve; moving more at the net to distract your opponents during the return; lending your partner your sun glasses; playing Australian (squatting near the center of the court and signaling your partner which way you will go right before they serve); making sure that your own serve is as different as possible from your partner’s serve thereby making both your serve and theirs more difficult to return; at the outset of the next set, test out more carefully which of you should be serving into the sun.


4. Although generally conceived of as a useful “best practice” in teams or groups, this “rule” can also be applied when it comes to problem solving in general. In particular, it could be particularly useful when resolving issues among two different groups, tribes, companies, or countries. While you pretty much know that the idea your tennis partner is trying to kill you is silly, if you’re part of a group of people who repeat such preposterous stories to each other enough, you will strongly come to believe such stories as the only possible explanation. Thus, a negotiator may try to bring about peace, or at least a ceasefire, between two warring parties, A and B. A thinks to themselves, “OK, I’ll sit down and talk but I know damned well B’s real purpose is to destroy me.” Meanwhile, of course, B is thinking, “OK, I’ll sit down and talk, but I know damned well A’s real purpose is to destroy me.” Ideally, you would like each side to consider the Iroquois Rule of Six. In fact, although this will be discussed in much more detail later, the very fact that they both distrust each other so much could be the initial starting point for finding common ground. Perhaps applying the Iroquois Rule of Six is something they could work on together. They might agree that there could be other motivations for X to fight Y aside from X trying to destroy Y and vice versa.

5. In a workshop I co-organized on “Cross-Cultural Issues in Human Computer Interaction,” we used a card game called Barnga (http://www.acadiau.ca/~dreid/games/Game_descriptions/Barnga1.htm)

In this game, much like Bridge, Whist, Eucher, people play a car in turn face up and the one with the “highest” car wins that “trick” (those four cards). The participants are shown a brief description of the game but not allowed to talk (to simulate the difficulties of cross-cultural communication). This is meant for groups of at least 12 in which case you would divide the 12 into 3 tables of four each. Each table plays for awhile and then the winners and losers move respectively “up” or “down” one table. So far, the participants at each table have been playing by the same set of rules. However, the three tables have three different sets of rules. For instance, at one table there is no trump. At another table spades are trump. (The 2 of a trump card beats any non-trump card). At another table, aces are the lowest car in the deck rather than the highest. Now, people who have learned and operated under different sets of rules try to play together. Well, of course, two people will both reach for the same “trick.”

What is interesting in the context of the Iroquois Rule of Six is that people almost always had one of two first thoughts: “What is wrong with that person? They’re so stupid!” or “What is wrong with that person? They’re such a cheater!” Remember, that these were people who had come together from around the world precisely to talk about cross-cultural issues! And, yet, not only was their first interpretation wrong, it impugned the other as being evil or incompetent. Most people from every culture do follow the rules of that culture. Rules often differ from culture to culture. Thinking about the Iroquois Rule of Six may help you remember that.


Resulting Context:

Generally speaking, the application of the Iroquois Rule of Six will tend to greatly lessen the chances that teamwork will be disrupted by bad feelings. In addition, if one takes the time to consider and gain evidence about alternative hypotheses, one will learn more about others and base decisions on fact rather than fantasy. Having a wide range of hypotheses, even when it is difficult to gather enough evidence to prove conclusively which one is correct, will greatly widen the scope of consideration of various solutions. In adversarial situations, the Iroquois Rule of Six might at least move people to consider bargaining on the basis of actual needs and desires rather than pre-established positions based on misinterpretations of another groups motives.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that all conflicts are based on misperceptions of someone else’s motives. In some situations, a finite resource may be in contention by multiple parties. (Even here, it’s possible for the three to agree on a scheme of determination; e.g., rotation, lottery, third-party adjudication, etc.).


Actions are always better based on reality than on fantasy. Yet, humans often latch onto a particular interpretation of events very quickly and with insufficient data. The Iroquois Rule of Six reminds people to generate alternative hypotheses and gather evidence before acting.

Related Patterns: 

Reality Check, Check-In.

Known Uses:

Science often approximates doing business in a similar spirit. Scientists are subject to the same sort of “jumping to conclusions” as is everyone else. During their training however, mentors, colleagues, students, professors, and journal editors will constantly be asking the fledgeling scientist to consider various other hypotheses and not simply be satisfied with the first one that pops into mind. In addition, the scientist will be shown how to find evidence capable of disproving their hypothesis.

In Rational-Emotive Therapy, the therapist often tries to get the client to consider alternatives and consequences. Among the alternatives that need most to be encouraged are attributions about other people’s motives.

In Gerri Spence’s highly recommended book, How to argue and win every time, he suggests that when someone in your family is angry with you, rather than getting angry back, instead, you “follow the hurt.” Try to discover what is hurting them. This is not precisely the same idea as The Iroquois Rule of Six, but it seems a cousin. Your initial reaction to anger is often anger. Along with that emotion typically goes some negative attribution about the other person; e.g., “What an A-Hole!” “You’re such an idiot!” “I didn’t put your sweater back? Yeah? How about the time you wrecked my bike?” Rather than sticking with these first impressions, try to uncover what’s really going on. By focusing on the real problem, rather than being blinded by your own emotional reaction, you’ll be more likely to work on a team to solve the underlying problem.


The strongest metaphor that leaps to mind is life itself. No form of life continues to make unaltered copies of itself forever. There is always variation in the next generation. Life never “sticks” to only one hypothesis.

The second metaphor is human learning. Although it’s annoying that I cannot ever seem to “perfect” my tennis stroke, by the same token, human motor behavior always has some “variation” in it. As we learn to gain more and more skill, we tend to keep those variations that are better. (There are limitations to this approach, but in the current context, the point is that we are not robots and never stick to precisely one way of doing things).  


Spence, G. (1995). How to Argue and Win Every Time: At home, at work, in court, everywhere, every day. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 Underwood, P. (1993). The Walking People: An American Oral History. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.

Underwood, P. (1994). Three Strands in the Braid: A Guide for Enablers of Learning. San Anselmo, CA: Tribe of Two Press.