"Nothing is anything, until you make it something"
I came across this quote a few years back and it stopped me in my tracks. Mostly because it put into words quite succinctly conversations I have with clients on a weekly basis.
I could ask 10 people to tell me what the above picture means and get 10 completely different answers. One might spot that it is a man and a woman (or is it?), another the power angle of the hands, another the shadows on the background, another the 4th banana hidden out of sight, another the sharp colours, another the significance of the thumb ring, and we could go on considering advertising, country of origin and so on.
The point being that people do not all reach the same conclusions on things. When a trigger event happens (we see, hear, feel or experience something), we each determine what meaning we are going to give it. Some of that determination is automatic, coming from our upbringing, life experiences, beliefs, culture and so on. But some of it can also be a choice or a habit.
In speaking with clients the conversations can go a little like this...
Jane: "I emailed two weeks ago and have heard nothing back, so I guess that's a no then"
Tom: "When we ended the meeting everyone was smiling, so I assume we are all good with the plan"
Sarah: "The new business venture has gone to Paul, so it is obvious they don't value me"
These situations more often than not lead to frustration, conflict, miscommunication and anxiety, to name just a few.
The human trait of making meaning out of things is both one of our greatest qualities and greatest barriers. A quality because when we create meaning we create connections, mostly with others, but also with causes and passions. A barrier because in the main we make meaning inside our own heads, and very often our meaning is incomplete. Perhaps it is missing context, others perspective, or it is exaggerated (confirmation bias). But mostly it may be missing context and/or information.
We often fail to validate our assumptions before concluding on the meaning. Take the above 3 examples. Before concluding
Jane risked missing out on a great opportunity with a new client. She could have followed up on her email to make sure it was received. Perhaps with a further email stating "I am checking you received my last email", and a voice message. If no further communication, she might send a final message along the lines of "If I don't hear back from you I will assume it is a no".
Tom risked having a team who weren't fully on board with his plan. Before the meeting ended he could have directly addressed this with something like "Does everyone understand the plan and their role?", "Is there anything anyone doesn't agree with, understand or feel comfortable with", "I would really appreciate your comments now before we get started". These questions help to unearth tensions early on, gain commitment and make sure that the plan, roles and responsibilities are understood.
Sarah is making a huge assumption that makes her feel rubbish. She will likely leave the organisation if she continues to believe this. She could schedule a meeting with her boss and say "I am keen to get feedback on the recent new venture decision and to understand what I can do to be considered for a similar opportunity in the future". This shows she is not lingering in the past, is open to getting feedback and is still ambitious for new opportunities.
Next time you find yourself concluding meaning in your head with the full facts, see if you can reach out and get the information you need to give a more accurate meaning to it. You may be surprised how many times you get it wrong!