Mistaken Interpretation


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.

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?

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