It happened last week. On my way to a meeting, I discovered I was driving without my license. My knee-jerk reactions: stomach drops, hands clench the wheel, eyes dart looking for the coppers.
My thoughts: Do I have time to go get it? I forgot my cell, too. What if my client calls me along the way? What if I get in an accident? I can’t afford a ticket! Stupid! What else did I forget? Some professional I am!
All that happens in a snap! No choice, all reaction. Something happens (fact: no license) and the “stories about” the fact (interpretations, judgments, opinions) flood in without effort.
The interpretations flood in without effort, but not without consequences. If we confuse the interpretations with the facts, if we act as if the interpretations are the facts, unintended consequences occur. Consequences that are the opposite of what I’m committed to, like berating myself to the point where I stop paying attention to driving safely, like second-guessing my preparation (what else did I forget?), listening only to my internal conversation and not being present to the actual conversation in the meeting. Result: rampant ineffectiveness.
We are making interpretations all the time. That’s how we humans are wired. Interpretations are valid as interpretations — they are not facts. The question is: Are the interpretations we are making forwarding our commitments or keeping us stuck in the past and keeping us disconnected from each other?
Relating to an interpretation as a fact – and, therefore, indisputable – often occurs when there’s a disagreement. Of course, this can also happen when there isn’t a dispute, but it’s especially important to be able to separate facts and interpretations when there’s a conflict, whether the conflict is between 2 people or within yourself.
|Observable||Opinions / Beliefs|
|Specific (actual words: “He said x, she said y.”)||Judgments|
|Physical / Quantifiable (measurable)||Reasons / Excuses|
To separate fact from interpretation and recover your ability to be present and effective, try these steps. (It often helps to do this with a partner.)
- Describe/write down the conflict in 2-3 paragraphs.
- Underline the facts, circle the interpretations.
- Write down the commitment that makes this conflict a conflict. *This is a critical step as it creates a “consciously generated” context/frame for the conversation, and puts aside the unconscious, “default” context of right/wrong/blame.
- From the perspective of the commitment, what’s missing? What’s needed?
- What action might you take forward the commitment? What action will you take?
Develop the skill of distinguishing fact from interpretation and you’ll spend less time wondering where the coppers are.
Go inward to go onward.
PS: On the light side…
Bob Smith is on his deathbed and knows the end is near. His nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons, are with him. He asks for 2 witnesses to be present and a camcorder to record his last wishes. When all is ready he begins to speak: “Bernie, my son, I want you to take the Mayfair houses. Sybil, my daughter, you take the apartments over in the east end. Jamie, my son, I want you to take the offices over in the City Centre. Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings on the banks of the river.” The nurse and witnesses are blown away; they did not realize his extensive holdings. As Bob slips away, the nurse says, “Mrs. Smith, your husband must have been such a hard-working man to have accumulated all this property.” The wife replies, “He had a paper route.”
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