A Coaching Power Tool Created by Nicole Eifler
(Executive and Business Coach, PORTUGAL)
You probably know the old joke about the husband and the flowers:
A husband wants to show his wife that after so many years he still loves her and brings her a bouquet of flowers. When his wife sees the flowers she asks: What did you do?
What is happening in this scene is a classical example of interpretation. In this case the wife makes her own interpretation of her husband’s behaviour and misunderstands her husband’s intention.
Interpretations are probably the most common sources of misunderstandings. We human beings have a need to attach meaning to anything around us—thus interpreting behaviours of others. The meaning we attach comes from our individualized perspective of looking at things, due to our education, our experience, our cultural background, etc. (For further exploration of individualized perspectives, check out Mental Mapping.)
When two people look at the same situation they see different things. The reality as they perceive it is influenced by their individualized perspectives—each of them constructs their own reality based on their individualized perspective. (For further exploration of constructing realities, check out Constructivism.)
Husband and wife are both participating in the same reality: He giving a bouquet of flowers to her. The meaning that both of them attach to this reality is based on their individualized perspectives. He sees it as an act of love; she finds it suspicious. If the wife told her best friend about this story she might reach a third conclusion:
He wants something from you.
Interpretations are based on opinions and different observers of the same situation will reach different conclusions. Interpretations are subjective and are in language often represented by adjectives: kind, suspicious, tricky, clever, intelligent, etc. Let’s just stick to the last word “intelligent”. Try it out and ask three of your friends to define the word intelligent. Let them write their answer down before sharing with you. Then let them read one after the other. You will have three different definitions of “intelligent”.
Interpretations are important in our daily life because they make interaction fast. If a friend asks me if I liked the concert and my answer is: “It was great.” Then this will be enough for him as the important thing for him is that I had a good time. But if it comes to human relationships interpretations are potential risks. Just as the wife interpreted her husband’s behaviour contrarily to his intention we may interpret a friend’s / a colleague’s / a bosses’ (re-)action in a not intended way. Take any kind of situation: not calling back for three days, not sharing an information, cancelling a meeting, etc. There may be n explanations for it, but the one we choose for ourselves is the one that will become our reality.
The only way of avoiding misinterpretations and therewith potential arguments is to stick to the facts and get the right meaning from the only source that knows for sure the right meaning: the other person involved. How can we stick to the facts? With observation instead of interpretation.
When sticking to observation we solely take in the facts: everything that we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. In human interaction it refers mostly to see and hear.
If the wife had stuck to observation she would have said:
I see you are bringing me flowers. And if she wanted to know the meaning of it she could have asked: What are they for?
Observations are objective and exclude the observer’s opinion. They refer to the facts and that is nothing that can be argued about. Several observers who stick to observation will reach the same observation. They don’t conclude. They don’t interpret. They just report the facts.
Observations are represented in language often by verbs: she is asking, he is giving flowers, he cancelled a meeting, she did not call, his test results were 90% correct answers, etc. Try it out and describe a person’s behaviour only with observation. You will be surprised how difficult it is. (Did you catch yourself using words like: tired, talkative, lively, funny? Beware, these are interpretations!)
When an interpretation has brought us trouble, observations allow us to go back to the root and find alternative explanations for the behaviour. In this sense Observation is the basic tool for Reframing Perspectives. By asking the client for the objective description of the initial situation, we can help him to see beyond his interpretation and find alternative explanations. Like this as coaches we can help our client to resolve conflicts and to come to a more empowering perspective. Whenever you detect an interpretation in your client’s descriptions, ask the single most important question:
What do you mean by that?
Whenever you hear an interpretation, don’t let it just pass by. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t think your client will know. Don’t think you should understand what your client means with that word. Make a pause, remind yourself that questioning is the best approach in coaching and ask:
What do you mean by that?
As a coach you may want to remind yourself of not jumping into interpretations when your client is telling you something. Don’t make your own interpretations of the meaning when your client tells you something, instead ask your client for the meaning.
When you catch yourself saying something like:
So, this means… reformulate your phrase into a question and ask: What does this mean to you?
Whenever you catch yourself to summarize in your notes a lengthy description by your client with words such as: frustrated, happy, stuck, lost, desperate, etc. force yourself to note down the description. It takes longer to write the facts than just writing the interpretation. But when you reach the end of the series of coaching sessions and you look at your notes from the first sessions, which note will be more informative for yourself: something that says
frustrated or something that says tried to change job several times, but interviews did not result in work offer?
When giving feedback to your client, use observations. Just describe back to him what you have heard. Don’t put your own interpretation in it. Your client will benefit from hearing a neutral summary of what he just said. If you feel that you automatically make an interpretation from what your client told you, be open and say so:
From what you describe to me, it sounds as if… Is that reading of mine correct?
Involve your client in constructing the observation.
One side effect of observations comes in handy:
observations automatically avoid judgments. Judgments come from interpretation. As coaches we have to be as objective and non-judgmental as possible and observations can help us to fulfil this requirement.
- Try for 3 minutes to observe a person and register all your observations.
o How difficult is it to stick to observations?
o Why are interpretations coming up automatically?
- Go through your coaching notes. Are they interpretations or observations?
- Is your coach using observation or interpretation in his questions, comments, or feedback? How do you feel about it?
- When someone acknowledges you using interpretations, how does it feel? Would it feel differently if s/he had used observations?
- How can you acknowledge someone using observations?
- How do interpretations feed our assumptions?
- In which parts of our lives can observation also be important?