When Observation Conflicts With Evaluation

August 30, 2012
A life coach offers her experience of interpreting an accident in New York City by adding a personal spin that didn’t fit the facts.


A ”Fond Farewell” Article

When I changed Support4Change to a new format, I needed to delete some articles that didn’t fit in the new site but were too good to completely throw away. So I have moved many of them here to the blog, where they will still be available and people can find them by using tags. Enjoy.


Preventing Interpretation from Getting in the Way of “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

Reprinted with permission

In the late 60’s there was a TV show about the Los Angeles Police Department called “Dragnet”. One of the lead characters became known for saying: Just the facts, ma’am. Anytime he would interview someone and that person would start to tell his or her story he would remind them: Just the facts. What Detective Webb understood is that when someone tells a story they are giving their interpretation of the facts. The facts of a situation don’t change, but how they are perceived and then spoken about depends on who is telling the story.

Here’s an example of how this worked in my life recently:

Last spring I was walking down a Manhattan street and witnessed something odd, even by New York City standards. I was enjoying the beauty of this particular spring day and became aware of lots of car horns honking. The sound of loud car horns and irate drivers are not unusual in New York. In fact, that kind of noise is the norm in New York. What happened next was unusual, even by New York standards.

Manhattan New York City 2008 PD a85A man came out of an large apartment building, got into a truck that was blocking traffic in the street, which in turn was causing all the car honking and shouting. The driver proceeded to start the truck, backed up into a truck that was behind it, shifted gears and started moving forward. The truck then veered sharply to the right running over a motorcycle, moved a concrete planter that housed a tree and eventually hit the wall of the apartment building he had just come out of moments before.

As I stood watching this scene unfold, my first thought was gratitude that I wasn’t walking on the other side of the street. The next thought that occurred to me was that this man had snapped. The yelling drivers and car horns had succeeded in pushing him over the edge. I thought I had just witnessed was going to be that evening’s lead news story. “Good evening ladies and gentleman. Welcome to tonight’s 5 o’clock report. Mild mannered truck driver goes berserk.”

When I came back an hour later and spoke with a policeman, I found out that there was a different interpretation for this set of circumstances. The truck driver’s assistant (the man I saw come out of the building), hearing the horns and commotion out on the street wanted to help by moving the truck out of the way. The only drawback to his being of help in this situation is that he didn’t know how to drive the truck or have a license to drive trucks! Good intention, poor follow through.

Here was one set of facts, but two interpretations. The truck backing up, running over a motorcycle, moving a concrete planter and slamming into the side of a building — these were circumstances that anyone could observe. One set of facts and the possibility of as many interpretations as people telling the story.

In our daily communication we tend to add evaluations to our observations. People simply combine the two. We add our personal spin to whatever we are talking about. In order to create an open environment for communication, we can learn to separate evaluation from what we observe. When Detective Webb was looking for information, he wanted facts and not interpretation or evaluation. The facts, not interpretation, would help him unravel the case he was working on.

When people mix evaluation and observation communication can break down. How? For one thing, when evaluation and observation are mixed, people tend to hear it as a criticism. “You aren’t doing your work well.” This is an example of evaluation and observation mixed together. “When I see that you don’t hand in your schoolwork on time, I feel you aren’t doing quality work.” This is an example of evaluation and observation that have been separated.

Becoming aware of when you are mixing evaluation and observation when you speak will help you in the communication process. I don’t think it is possible to not observe without making evaluations or having an interpretation. I do think that we can become clear about when we are mixing evaluation with our observations. Try making this one small adjustment in the way you communicate and you may find yourself engaging in authentic communication more often.

© 2002, Lea Brandenburg

Lea Brandenburg is president of Creating Strategies in New York, NY, and has been coaching an international group of clients and businesses since 1997. Her areas of expertise and passion are interpersonal and business communication, intuitive intelligence and creativity. She is a graduate of Coach U, the coaching industry’s premiere and oldest training program, a member of the International Coach Federation, which is an association dedicated to preserving the integrity and ethics of the coaching profession, and a Founding Member of Coachville, the first on line coaching training company and portal. You can contact her at lea@creatingstrategies.com.

 Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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