Observation & Interpretation


Observation & Interpretation

Observation & Interpretation

I participated to Problem Solving Leadership course a month ago in Albuquerque, New Mexico, US. You could write several blog posts about the course but there’s one particular learning that I want to write about. That’s the difference between observation & interpretation.

Before going further, let’s define what I mean by those words. Oxford Dictionary can handle the definitions this time:

A remark, statement, or comment based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed

The action of explaining the meaning of something

In our everyday life these to tend to get mixed. When we comment what we have seen, we have a habit of jumping to interpretations. We see a colleague closing a door in such a way that there’s a loud noise. And perhaps later we mention to him:

I noticed you were angry.

For me this comment would have been an observation earlier. But not anymore. Because you need to be able to read minds to make such a comment. And as far as I know, we can’t read minds.

You don’t know what goes in other persons head. Even if that person is a person who you have lived with 30 years, you still don’t know. Sure. You can be right often, but that’s still different from actually knowing and making an objective observation that someone is angry.

You cannot not interpret

@al3ksis You cannot not interpret @JerryWeinberg

I felt after PSL that I will focus more on observations instead of jumping into interpretations. But then James Coplien tweeted that one cannot not interpret and it put my thoughts spinning again.

We exchanged couple tweets but I moved the conversation quite quickly to email discussion between me, James & Jerry. This was one of those discussions I didn’t want to have on Twitter because of the character limitations.

Based on our email discussion, I think James was trying to emphasize that our mind has a habit of interpreting, even when we are trying to focus on making observations instead of interpretations. Satir Interaction Model was also tightly integrated to our discussion as observations (Intake) and interpretations (Significance) are part of it.

Jerry mentioned Virginia Satir on his own reply and how she had always pointed out we could not “not do something”.

Don’t think of an elephant.

Don’t tell me you thought of an elephant?

That’s fine. As Jerry pointed out how Virginia always talked about accepting what is and building on it.

We are humans. It’s normal that we jump to interpretations. We can still choose our response. Which is what I think Viktor Frankl has also spoke about:

They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way

Viktor FranklMan's Search For Meaning

Interpretations will happen, but you can build on that as Jerry mentioned. Asking the Data Question can help:

What did I see or hear or smell or taste or feel that led me to those interpretations?

or you can open yourself to possibility of other interpretations existing:

What other interpretations I could make based on what I saw or hear…

What next

From now on I will still focus on making observations (which I need to write a separate blog post about) instead of interpretations. But I will not blame myself of jumping into interpretations. Instead I will try to slow down the process between seeing or hearing something and responding based on that.

Asking the data question. Trying to come up with several interpretations. And being patient with progress. I’m never going to be perfect in it.