Mistaken Interpretation

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Summary:

Our brains are wonderful processors capable of making sense of the huge amount of sensory input we receive every day. But sometimes, our first interpretation of sensory data can lead us astray. Esther Derby shows us how assuming our interpretation of events holds the truth of the matter can damage relationships, and how testing our interpretations can help.

"Jim was trying to publicly humiliate me!" Dave asserted, "What a jerk."

"When did this happen?" I asked.

"During the conference call yesterday," Dave responded. "You were there. You heard him. He reamed me in front of the group."

Actually, I hadn't heard him. Or to be more precise, I heard what Jim said, but I didn't hear Jim humiliate Dave, nor had I heard Jim ream Dave.

During the conference call, Jim said "Dave, you haven't been present for our last three calls, and you haven't returned phone calls or emails."

How did Dave get from those words to public humiliation? He told himself a story.

From Point A to Point B, Sometime by a Circuitous Route
Interactions start with sensory input: some one says something; we hear the words, tone, and inflection; and if we're face-to-face, we see physical posture, facial expression, and gestures. Based on what we've seen and heard, we interpret a meaning. Most of the time, our interpretation is close enough that we catch the (intended) drift and can continue the conversation.

Once in a while, our interpretation is off and our communication becomes tangled. If we've misheard or misinterpreted a word, it's relatively easy to get back on track. But sometimes the interpretation we make causes a rift. Then we need to work harder to get back on track.

Separate Sensory Input from Interpretation
Our brains are wonderful processors capable of processing vast amounts of data in the blink of an eye. It happens so fast that most of the time we aren't aware that there are two separate steps. But if we learn to separate these steps, we can increase our effectiveness.

I don't mean that in each interaction we need to stop and ask ourselves, "What did I see and hear? What interpretation am I making?" It's just good practice to slow down the process and consciously separate what we have seen and heard from the meaning we make, especially when emotions are high—as in Dave's case.

Once you've separated the data from interpretation, reevaluate your interpretation. Our interpretation can lead us to fabricate specific types of stories, which tend to land us in trouble.

I'm an Innocent Victim
In Innocent Victim stories, we tell ourselves that we played no part in creating the situation—we're zero percent responsible. When Dave described how Jim humiliated him, Dave conveniently left out facts unflattering to his case—that he had indeed missed three meetings and not returned calls or messages.

He's a Bad Guy
Like Innocent Victim stories, Bad Guy stories absolve us of any responsibility as well. Bad Guy stories not only let us off the hook, but make the other person 100 percent responsible. Bad Guy stories start by assuming that the other person has evil motives. You can spot a Bad Guy story because it labels the other person as an idiot, vindictive, etc. Once we label someone, it's easy to trash him. And that's where Bad Guy stories go.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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