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 That is, if I become withdrawn when angry, I assume that when people seem withdrawn, they're angry, too.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
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
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