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 That is, if I become withdrawn when angry, I assume that when people seem withdrawn, they're angry, too.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 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.
- 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
- 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. Top Next Issue
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!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- Some Limits of Root Cause Analysis
- Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has
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- When It's Just Not Your Job
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making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
- Paradoxical Policies: II
- Because projects are inherently unique, constructing general organizational policies affecting projects
is difficult. The urge to treat projects as if they were operations compounds the difficulty. Here's
a collection of policies for projects that would be funny if they weren't real.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 26: Unintended Condescension: II
- Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more. Available here and by RSS on February 26.
- And on March 4: Workplace Remorse
- Remorse is an unpleasant emotion. But it need not be something we suppress or avoid. It can provide a path to a positive learning experience that adds meaning to life. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.