Mistaken Interpretation

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Unraveling the Knot
If you catch yourself in one of these stories, stop. Unravel the knot you are in before you take action or say something you'll regret later. Start by reviewing the sensory input.

What did you see or hear? Don't bleed over into interpretation. When I asked Dave what he'd heard, he replied "Jim told me I'm irresponsible." That's an interpretation. Jim didn't say that at all and may not have meant that. Jim may have been leading up to asking if Dave had been ill. Stick with the facts—just the facts.

If you're telling yourself an Innocent Victim story, ask yourself, "What part did I play? If I asked an impartial observer, what part would he say I played?" Dave conveniently ignored he had in fact missed three calls and gone dark for two weeks.

On the other hand, if you are telling a Bad Guy story, strip off the label. Ask yourself, "What would have to be true for a reasonable person to act this way?"

Once you convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, you are not a victim or the other person isn't a villain, generate at least three possible interpretations, that remind you an interpretation is not a fact.

After Dave and I talked this through, he decided to talk to Jim about what happened during the conference call. Dave realized that he'd been hasty in ascribing motives to Jim, yet he still wanted to convey that he had been embarrassed when Jim publicly recited his absences. Dave approached Jim and shared his interpretation as a hypothesis, not a fact. After listening to Dave, Jim paused for a moment.

"Well," Jim said, "What I was going to say is that it looks like we did a good job covering for you. I was wondering whether I could take some time off and the team could cover for me as well. But when you snapped at me, I decided it meant you didn't think I should take time off."

Dave looked chagrinned. "Sounds like we both jumped to misinterpretations."

Once Dave and Jim realized they had misinterpreted the facts, it didn't take long for them to untangle the conference call interaction. Dave decided that maybe Jim wasn't a jerk. Jim checked with the team and scheduled a few days out of the office.

Isn't it a wonder that human communication works at all?

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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