Separate interpretations from observations

I realised some time ago that the reactions caused by other people’s behaviour don’t stem from the behaviour itself but the interpretations we attach to it. This has been a central realisation as I have learnt to have difficult conversations, to give critical feedback and to resolve conflicts. If your work includes mediation, teamwork or especially leading a team, it’s important to learn to separate interpretations from observations.

This sounds like an easy task, but is more difficult in practice. It just so happens that we think of ourselves as reliable, objective and neutral narrators whose observations are true. Yet we always observe the world through our own interpretative framework. We are sometimes very ignorant of the extra shades that we add to our stories.

What is an observation and what use is it?

An observation is describing what a surveillance camera would record. What could every person present confirm they saw or heard? An observation tells us what happened, when and where. An observation is also one single event, not a general always or never.

An observation is the basis for communication in for example nonviolent communication. When we begin to express ourselves, to give feedback or to resolve conflicts, we must always begin by neutrally figuring out what has happened. It’s important that all parties can agree on the observation.

Without a neutral observation, it is difficult to get the conversation going in the right direction. We end up arguing about interpretations and don’t get to discuss the main issue. On the other hand, if we agree on the observation, we can more easily turn the conversation to its effects, the intentions behind the behaviour or what would be the desired course of action from now on.

An observation or an interpretation

An observation becomes an interpretation when an addition, an assumption or a judgement is mixed in.

For example, adjectives and adverbs are generally interpretations. We can for example think we are making a neutral observation that someone is speaking angrily. But is that for certain? Perhaps they’re simply passionate and we interpret their excitement as anger. In a different situation, we might say that someone is speaking gently. The same body language can be fearful, shy, sad, quiet or possibly withdrawing.

An observation becomes an interpretation also through assumptions. We’re quick to say that someone has skipped or ignored our latest emails. However, this is an interpretation. It’s just as possible that the other person hasn’t received or noticed our emails, or had the time to check their email at all. When we add some sort of intention to other people’s behaviour, we’ve arrived at an interpretation.

Judgements show what we think about other people’s actions. We might say that someone’s behaviour is inappropriate, excellent or confusing. This is what we experience, but it is not a pure observation. Someone else can experience the same behaviour differently.

Expressing observations can feel awkward

We are so used to expressing interpretations that we have to initially practice making observations. In the beginning, it might even be a good idea to check with a colleague whether your observation is really an observation or does it contain a bit of interpretation. Observations can also feel artificial or awkward, but they’ll still be better received than interpretations.

  • This document is written carelessly. vs.
  • This document has factual and spelling errors on these pages.

  • You behaved rudely during the meeting. vs.
  • You said, ”Don’t harp on about stupid stuff”, and walked out of the meeting.

  • You’re not focused enough on solutions. vs.
  • During the last meeting, when I suggested X, you found problems Y and Z, but didn’t offer any solutions.

  • You’ve underperformed at work recently and haven’t respected the goals the team agreed on. vs.
  • During the last month, you haven’t progressed/finished the things you’ve started.

People have many reasons and explanations for their behaviour. We get to talk about them constructively when we first agree on the observation.

TL;DR: It’s difficult to separate interpretations from observations.

  • We imagine our own observations to be true and don’t notice that our interpretative frame adds extra shades.
  • An observation tells us what happened, when and where.
    • Everyone in the conversation can agree on the observation.
  • An observation turns into an interpretation when additions, assumptions or judgements are mixed in.
    • Guesses about the other person’s intentions and our own opinions on what happened have no place in a neutral observation.
  • While practicing, it’s a good idea to ask a colleague if your observation is truly and observation or if there’s still a bit of interpretation left in.

Read more on the topic:

Marshall B. Rosenberg: Nonviolent communication
The Arbinger Institute: Leadership and Self-deception
Liv Larsson: A Helping Hand

Or what do you think?

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