Many years ago I was introduced to a chap in the office who I would be working with for a while. I forget what he looked like, but I recall over the next few days and weeks becoming increasingly convinced he was a rude and aggressive individual.
For example, he would usually ignore attempts to get his attention, just staring at his screen until I went out of my way to interrupt him.
In contrast, he would harshly shout “Steve!” at any moment and, after picking myself up, he’d stand too close and speak too loudly to me, making me feel uneasy if not somewhat threatened.
These behaviours were in stark contrast to my own and they caused a real physical effect on me, which I’m sure dulled my ability to work – after all, how do you concentrate on technical detail when some of the feelings you’re experiencing hark back to primitive times of survival!
I wasn’t enjoying working with him at all, but the story has a happy ending. Maybe you’ve spotted it already…
But first let me leap forwards many years, though, to the event that reminded me of that opening story. I met a rather talented and charming lady called Esther. Through working with Esther and some other talented coaches I had become aware of my habit of interpreting things too quickly and falling into the safe hands of confirmation bias. This habit was the subject of a conversation I was having with Esther and she gave me a simple tool to help out. Esther’s deceptively simple yet clever advice was to amplify the interpretation rather than try to stop it. When you spotted yourself interpreting, her advice was to go for it and try to come up with multiple interpretations for the same observations. The more the better. In that way it becomes very obvious that your first conclusion wasn’t the only conclusion and, most likely, was not the correct one either.
The trick is to spot when you’ve moved from observing to interpreting.
One habit I’ve tried to get into is to assume I’m assigning causes and interpretations and to prove to myself that I’m not, rather than the other way round. That was a pretty good tactic for a while and remains a really useful trick to give yourself a different perspective. Another trick is to be on the lookout for terms and phrases that are not tightly bound to the observation – emotions being a good example. It’s also often easier to notice when others fall into this behaviour than it is to spot it within ourselves, of course. I find spotting an example in others often triggers the realisation that it is something I do too.
I was out on a shout recently with the volunteers of the Swanage Lifeboat. We’d been called to a distress call made via an app on a mobile phone – I’d never heard of it. The app is designed to track your passage, allowing search and rescue agencies to get accurate information if you’re declared overdue or, as in this case, make some form of distress call. We were given a brief description of the vessel, it’s last logged position, course and speed – the data coming from the app. There was no indication of the nature of the distress, so our mission was locate and assist as necessary. So off we went, myself sat in the navigator’s seat. I plotted up the boat’s last position and we hit the throttles. On route, however, discussions turned to questioning some of the data we’d received – there was a conflict between the vessel’s description and it’s last reported speed. This data had all come from the app, so it must be accurate, right? It was certainly precise and we quickly agreed that the speed data being incorrect for one of several conceivable reasons was the most likely reason for the conflict. But then we tried Esther’s trick and came up with some other scenarios to explain the data we had. What if the speed data is correct and the description of the vessel is wrong? A quick new plot placed the boat in a very different position to where we were currently headed. Now we had alternatives to contemplate. This particular story ends quickly at this point, because by coincidence the coastguard were able to contact the vessel in distress directly for the first time and found out that it was a false alarm. But they also discovered that the boat details registered on the app were for a different, much slower, boat – if we hadn’t observed the contradiction and explored all interpretations we could have been searching for a long time…
But I digress.
How does the story about my rude colleague end? Simple really. One day, over coffee, I was chatting to another colleague about how I found working with this chap. My colleague said “You know he’s nearly deaf, don’t you?”, and there it was – a new bit of information allowing a different interpretation of the behaviours I’d observed.
I had taken the behaviours I’d seen – loud and too close, hard to gain his attention – and interpreted them as rude and aggressive. Worse than that, I’d gone to the ‘rude & aggressive’ conclusion sub-consciously without even noticing the data that could be interpreted in different ways. In fact I doubt I even separated the two – as far as I was concerned the interpretation was what I saw. It took the extra information to kick me into a place where there was the possibility of a different explanation.
This in turn gave me a reason to change my own behaviour. I tried to speak a little louder to him, in turn he didn’t stand so close. When he didn’t stand so close, he didn’t sound so loud. When I want to grab his attention I made sure I was in his eye-line. Now I didn’t have to shout and bang him on the shoulder. More subtle things happened too. We spoke more, maybe because our bandwidth was suddenly greater (other explanations are available). We got to know each other better. We worked together more effectively and I enjoyed it.
What reasons could be, For observations you see, One, two - or many?