Five of us went to the District workshop on leadership and communications this past weekend, and I had an eye opening experience! One of the exercises we did was to respond to a piece of paper on which there was a black-and-white line drawing. Our instructions were to write a description of what was on the paper and to be very detailed. I felt rather smug about the assignment: after all I've taught communication skills and done these kinds of exercises before. So I was quite surprised at what evolved.
All of us did rather poorly, as it turns out. When we'd finished sharing our descriptions, we were told that there were three ways of responding to an assignment like this one -- with description, with interpretation, and with evaluation or analysis. Very few of us made comments that were description; in fact we were told that a previous group doing the exercise had decided that the only description they could agree on was "a white piece of paper with black lines on it." Everything else was at the very least interpretation and often evaluation.
Why is that important? Well, those interpretations varied from one to another of us. When we saw the drawing through the lens of our experiences and understandings, we didn't agree on what was there! And yet, each of us had thought we were simply describing what we saw. In a setting like the workshop, we could appreciate the different interpretations and enjoy the imaginative ways in which we differed. But in real life, I think we don't always have that same generous spirit.
In fact, my "mistake" was in assuming I was being very literal and unbiased in "describing" what I saw. The truth is I was interpreting just about everything I wrote. How often do we assume that we are being unbiased or objective and, therefore, also assume someone who experiences the same event differently is wrong, or at least subjective. I don't think there's anything wrong with interpretation -- I pretty much believe it's part of being human -- but we get into a world of trouble if we don't also understand that someone else is twisting things, making them up, or perhaps confused when they experience differently.
This isn't news -- there have been reports of our subjectivity for decades. Think about those cases where several eye witnesses report very different "things" after an accident or witnessing a traumatic event. What was important to me at the workshop was to realize how easy it is to mis-communicate because we mistake interpretation or evaluation for description. I'm liking the idea that this alone is going to make me a better communicator! I'll still interpret, but I'll recognize that I'm doing so.
In the meantime, may you