Confusing thinking with observing

We all make up stories to give meaning to situations of which we are part or wish to understand – and these stories are created from a mix of our thoughts and observations. In this article I have drawn on some of the work by Gervase Bushe, in his book, Clear Leadership:sustaining real collaboration and partnership at work, and also the work of Michael Grinder.

Being clear about which are thoughts and which are observations can become critical to improving understanding between people and reducing those assumptions we make about both people and situations.

Thinking involves all the cognitive processes such as thoughts, judgments, perceptions, interpretations, ideas, beliefs, internal dialogues and daydreams. People vary in their depth of awareness of what they think and the speed with which they access their awareness. Some people need time to reflect and discover what they think – while others talk to think. Some of our thoughts are outside our awareness, some we are aware of or can surface relatively easily. For example – when driving a car, many of our thoughts about what to do to control the car are outside our awareness, but if prompted we could quite easily access the thoughts that lead to us driving our car. In fact, the vast majority of our cognitive processing occurs outside our real time awareness.

At other times we might think that a member of our team is under-mining us, because we remember an incident in the past where indeed we were under-mined by a person who behaved in a similar way. In this example we are confusing thinking with observation. We have made an interpretation of what someone is doing or how he or she is speaking with a past experience (thinking). In fact, whenever anyone does anything that prevents us from doing what we wish or obliges us to do something we would rather not do, then feelings are triggered. It is often these feelings that spur us to make assumptions about either the other person’s motives or their “character”.

Observation is what is either seen or heard, touched, smelled or tasted: impact directly on any of our five senses. For example – if some described another in these terms: “they spoke softly, did not hold eye contact and wriggled in their seat, then they are making an observation. But if they describe the person as anxious and avoidant, then they are making an assumption, an inference if you will. Linking what we see and hear with the notion of being anxious or avoidant is actually making a judgment. It may not in fact be what is really going on or what is intended by the other person.

Many seem to find it quite challenging to be objective and just focus on what we see and /or hear without overlaying it with an interpretation or inference. However, if we are to improve the relationships among people we need to hone this skill and actively practice removing personal biases. That is, become aware of what are our actual observations and what are our thoughts. Michael Grinder would describe this as separating the sensory and non-sensory worlds.

Three simple practical things you can do to be clear about what is observed and what is thought (interpreted or assumed) are,

  • Imagine that you are a fly on the wall or a mouse on the rafter, and ask yourself what the mouse or fly would be seeing or hearing going on at this very moment, i.e. step outside yourself
  • Use ‘sensory language’ to describe what is going on: Preface your statements with words like I see … or I heard … Examples of such language – “the person’s face became redder, they were glancing frequently at the leader, and speaking rapidly with lots of ums or errs”.
  •  Do a personal ‘brainstorm’ of all the possible explanations for the behavior you are observing. This causes you to focus on the observation and the brainstorm reminds you of the many possible assumptions that could be made. Michael Grinder calls this the “Three Whys”: try and find at least three alternative explanations for why the person may have been behaving the way they did; this immediately frees your thinking from the assumptions in which you may be trapped and allows you to sort observation from thinking.

Jill Tideman

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