Confusing Facts and Interpretations is a common and time-honored way of acting in a way that will later be thought of as a judgment error. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell these things apart and sometimes it’s not so easy to defer action until you are sure your interpretation is right. Developing these two skills is an important part of being a business owner and/or manager, so let’s look at a few features.
Fact v. Interpretation
A fact is something that has been shown by proof or repeated observation to be true and is not dependent on the context or the messenger. It’s important to confuse consensus with facts, however. Things that seem self-evident can be wrong or disproven later (see Flat Earth Society minutes). Mathematical equations, weights and measures, etc. can be thought of as provable facts, at least within the confines of our normal experiences.
Once we are in the realm of more complex aspects, we are usually dealing with a fact set and then an interpretation. Example: she didn’t say good morning today, so she must be mad about what went on in the meeting yesterday. The first aspect is an observable fact the second aspect is an interpretation. This sort of thing goes on frequently, and can charitably be thought of as intuition, or more harshly thought of as jumping to conclusions. Some people are more deliberative about making interpretations; some have a much shorter fuse. If you’re the Yosemite Sam type, here are a few ways to question your own processes:
- How do you know? This question makes you look at the actual information you have in order to reach a conclusion. It can sometimes be the barest level of information, sometimes nearly none!
- Are you sure? This question forces you to evaluate the accuracy of your conclusion, the logical outcome being that if you are not sure, don’t act.
- What else could it be? This question forces you to think of alternative explanations for observed facts. Maybe she didn’t say good morning because she had a fight with her spouse, and it has nothing to do with you!
Acting on interpretations
None of this is to suggest that interpreting fact sets is wrong or should never be acted on. In complex inter-personal situations, we rarely if ever have a full set of facts to guide decision-making. We are in effect forced to act on interpretations in the real world, like it or not. A few methods of guiding your own actions following interpretations:
- Can this wait? Am I acting out of impulse or is the situation truly urgent? Is there any timeline for action or response?
- Can I do nothing? Is this something I actually need to act upon or will it self-resolve we no action on my part?
- Can I get confirmation or denial of my interpretation? This is essentially asking for feedback from the other person. Example, “Hey I noticed that you did not say good morning like you usually do. Are you upset with me?” This can take some courage because you might not particularly enjoy the response, but it’s worth asking.
One other habit of thought that can aggravate this situation is the tendency to use behavioral words in their most extreme form. We might say always or never, rather than sometimes or most of the time. We might say everybody or nobody rather than some people or most people. These language constructions can turn gray situations, with ambiguity or complexity into oversimplified, black and white ones. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but one worth avoiding.