The Distorted Lenses Through Which We See

Humans are meaning-making creatures. The processing units in our minds instantaneously take the information that comes in through our senses, and attach meaning to it. Over time, the meanings we have attributed to our experiences get clustered together into beliefs. We think, when observing the world, that we are seeing what is, but we are really seeing our interpretations of what is.
Because meaning is created from experience, the more seasoned you are, the more powerful are your mental models – and the more invisible is that meaning-making step. As a leader, you rely on your mental models to identify patterns, see implications, decide what to focus on – but if you don’t recognize how that can cause you to filter reality, you are at risk.
What kinds of things do we attach meaning to?

  • How another person reacts to us.
  • The motives or intentions behind others’ behaviors.
  • What others mean by the words they use.

The meaning we attach to these things may be very different than the meaning the other person holds. Even more – our meaning-making is so powerful that it can color our memory of what we ordinarily call “facts” – what someone said, or did, to us.
Recently, I had a humbling experience. I was listening to someone in a conversation, and afterwards I learned that I had literally heard the person’s words  differently than they had actually uttered them, which of course led me to misinterpret what they were trying to convey. The differences were, though small in quantity, large in implications. Fortunately, there was a third person present who was able to validate what was actually said. But this was a disturbing wake-up call for me, since I work hard to listen deeply and hear what is actually being said and intended.
Since then, I have been paying attention to the role of meaning-making and misinterpretation in people’s conflicts. Here are just two I have witnessed in the last few days:

Anya has a new boss, Michael, in a position for which Anya felt that she herself should have been considered. Anya says that she is annoyed because Michael “is always asking me questions about what I’m working on. I think he’s just trying to pretend he’s doing something useful.”
Pam and Sheetal, who are peers, are having conflict. Pam is critical of  Sheetal’s performance, which affects Pam’s work, and Sheetal feels intimidated by Pam. Sheetal reported that Pam had “hit and yelled at her” during a recent event. Pam had no memory of these behaviors, though she acknowledged that she might have bumped Sheetal, as they were walking and carrying folders.

These examples also show that, when we’re having trouble with a person, we listen less and make more meaning based on limited data.
What can you do, if you don’t want to be at the mercy of automatic meaning-making?
Identify your assumptions and judgments. As you are going about your day and reacting to other people, notice when you hear yourself saying…

  • “He’s doing it because…”
  • “That annoys me because…”
  • “He should do it different because…”
  • “Ah! I understand what’s going on here!”

Where did you get these meanings? Try to see them as just your story.
Get familiar with your own feeling of certainty. What’s the bodily sensation at that moment? Use that as your red flag – a clue to pay attention, because your meaning-making engine has kicked into gear.
Purify your listening. Try hard to separate your recording from your meaning-making, so that your assumptions are visible to you, and testable. You won’t stop making meaning, but you can recognize when you’re doing it.
Be curious. Change your response, from “I know exactly what you mean,” to “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” Instead of assuming, wonder. Ask lots of open-ended questions, using “how” and “why.” 

Be okay with uncertainty.
Get as much satisfaction from feeling, “I don’t understand,” as you do from feeling, “I understand!”
What do you think? How do you see that your meaning-making has helped and hindered you in your daily life?

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