Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 3;   January 16, 2008: Making Meaning

Making Meaning

by

When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
A lunar eclipse

The lunar eclipse of November 8, 2003. The history of eclipses provides many excellent examples of human patterns of interpretation of events. Because we now know how eclipses occur, it's easier for us to objectively evaluate interpretations made by those who lived in times before we acquired our modern understanding. One illustration comes to us from Thucydides, in The Peloponnesian War. He writes that in the nineteenth year of the war, the Athenians, who had laid siege to Syracuse for two years, determined to break off the siege, which had been at best a mixed success. But on the evening before their planned departure, a total lunar eclipse occurred. One of the commanders, Nicias, after consulting seers, determined to stay for another 27 days, and during that time, the Syracusans attacked and defeated the Athenians. Possibly Nicias had been motivated solely by religious faith, but in the debates that occurred among the Athenians during the weeks prior to the eclipse, Nicias had been a staunch holdout for maintaining the siege. It's likely that his interpretation of the lunar eclipse was driven more by his preferences, preconceptions and agendas, than by religious faith. This premise is easier for us to accept, now that we understand eclipses, than it would have been for Nicias' contemporaries. Photo by Nicolas M. Short, courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Some time ago, a client — let's call him Bert — reported that his boss disliked him. "Oh," I said, "how come?" It turned out that most of Bert's evidence was based on his boss's silence when Bert did good work. If there were difficulties, his boss did intervene, but otherwise he said little. Bert said, "I hear from him only when I'm in trouble. He hates me."

Bert could have been right, but there were other possibilities. With a little difficulty, and some encouragement, Bert accumulated half a dozen alternative explanations, some quite flattering of Bert. That led us to explore how we interpret events.

We see things. We hear things. We interpret them, sometimes nearly instantaneously. And when we do, we tend to overlook other interpretations consistent with our observations. Here are some patterns that lead us to overlook possible interpretations.

They're doing what I've done
At times we assume that when people behave the way we sometimes do, they have the same reasons we do. That is, if I become withdrawn when angry, I assume that when people seem withdrawn, they're angry, too.
Remember that my reasons for what I do might not be your reasons for doing that very same thing.
Omniscience
Omniscience is beyond anyone's reach, but we often assume that we fully understand others' circumstances. We then use that mistaken understanding to explain their behavior.
Seeing things as others see them is difficult even when they tell us what they see — and usually, we just guess. Asking is better. See "The Mind Reading Trap," Point Lookout for October 10, 2001, for more.
Avoidance
There are some explanations that we wish were untrue. There are others that remind us of repulsive things, or things we fear. If our revulsion is strong enough, we can trick ourselves into ignoring these possibilities.
Interpretations are more likely to be correct if you've included for consideration any factors that repel you, scare you, or would make life really difficult.
My reasons for what I do
might not be your reasons
for doing that very
same thing
Preferences, preconceptions, and agendas
Avoidance's companion is Preference. Sometimes we confuse truth with what we want to be true. Too often, we accept without question that which confirms our beliefs, provides us with excuses, or absolves us of responsibility.
Take time to review how you know what you know. Is it really so? Test it.
There and then instead of here and now
When events remind us of past experiences, we sometimes return involuntarily. We repeat the past, or live it the way we wish we had, instead of making choices that fit the here and now.
Staying present can be most difficult. Take extra care when you notice similarities between the now and the then. For more on the involuntary identification of the there-and-then with the here-and-now, see "You Remind Me of Helen Hunt," Point Lookout for June 6, 2001.

What are your favorite patterns? Observe yourself for a week or two, noticing interpretations that turn out to be mistaken. Once you know your favored patterns, they'll almost automatically become less favored. Try it. Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Personal Risk Management  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Uphill trekSelling Uphill: Before and After
Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading decision makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way for success now and in the future?
A sleeping dogRecovering Time: I
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
Perceptual illusions resulting from reificationThe Reification Error and Performance Management
Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted results.
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternThe Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I
Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen?
Why we have so many virtual interviews now: no one is in the officeVirtual Interviews: II
The pandemic has made face-to-face job interviews less important. And so we must now also master virtual interviews, and that requires understanding the effects of the attendance list, video presence, and the technologies of staging, lighting, and makeup.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerComing October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
An owl of undetermined speciesAnd on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensDaBMTItJCwaKsgNner@ChacCrQTBGMzBwhIqYTXoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.