Behavior vs. Interpretation

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  
W. Shakespeare — Hamlet

Let me tell you a story about this interpretation process. My wife and I are in California taking a vacation and driving through Mendocino County, this was about 20 years ago. We came to a little town in the middle of the trip to Mendocino, called Boonville. It was a one gas station, store kind of town. We went inside the store and got some coffee. I noticed a young man, early thirties, with a young boy sitting on his lap, and the father was strumming on a guitar. He was well dressed and looked like someone you would see working in downtown San Francisco or Manhattan. As we were pulling out of the store I said to Anita, “Did you notice that guy and his kid in there? Here it is a Tuesday, it’s 11AM, that kid should be in school, and that father should be working. And there is something about him that looks out of place. I’ll bet you he has 40 acres of Marijuana growing in the woods not far from here and is making $400K/year and living the good life”.

Now, the funny part of this story is that I knew I was making this up, I have a rich imagination. But this is what we all do all the time. We see something and interpret it immediately. Notice in the examples below, there is just one behavior, and many possible different interpretations of it. Think about it, someone does something, (a behavior), and the five people observing it can all have a different interpretation of what they just saw and heard!

 The Behavior (what you say or do)The Interpretation (your story about it)
Sally sat at the Monday staff meeting, with her arms crossed and didn’t say a single word Sally is very wise. Sally is a snake in grass, watch out. Sally is defensive and angry.
John interrupted his boss twice at the Friday meeting. John is passionate about his ideas. John needs to learn to hold his tongue. John has a boss who talks too slow. 
When I passed Susan in the hall she didn’t  say hi or even smile at me. Susan is a very focused person. Susan for some reason, hates me. Susan looks very stressed out. 
Eric walks into the all hands meeting 10  minutes late When you’re the boss you can’t be late. Eric must be pretty busy. Eric doesn’t respect the team.
Kate called her boss to complain about her co-worker 4 times in the past month. Kate is a controlling manager. Kate enjoys complaining to her boss. Kate needs to deal with her co-worker.
You said you would be home at 6, and you show up at 7. You saved a puppy on the way home. You really don’t love me anymore. You got caught up in traffic.

Why is it important to be aware of this? You hear about “mastering your stories”, but really how do you do that? First of all, you have to be aware of the fact that we all create stories. We do it all the time, unconsciously. I was working with another manager a couple of months ago and we had a similar discussion. He wanted to fire the “insubordinate, unprofessional, and rude” subordinate. After an hour of working through the actual behaviors of the recalcitrant, the manager told me, “Jim, this is a lot of hard work.” Yes, it is, and it’s worth it to be clear and help people.