The following is Section 2 from Module 4 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.
Differentiating Fact and Interpretation, Position and Interest
The previous section focused primarily on how we will share our perspective. Our goal is to share our perspective in such a way that it is easy for the other to hear, understand and respond. In this section we will focus more on what we will share. We will focus our strategies on a couple of key distinctions, facts/interpretation of facts and positions/interests.
Let’s start with differentiating facts from interpretation of facts. Chris Argyris, business theorist and a key thinker around the notion of Learning Organizations developed the “Ladder of Inference” as a model of how people process information. Visualize a ladder as we start on the first step in our process of making meaning out of experience:
- At the base of the ladder: We start with data and experience. We are experiencing our world almost as a camera would see it.
- First rung: We select certain data and experience to pay attention to. We can not possibly attend to everything so we are selective. Our selection is influenced by our past, our expectations, our values, etc.
- Second rung: To the data selected we add meaning. This is a critical shift from facts (actual events) to creating interpretations of facts.
- Third rung: Assumptions are formed on the basis of the meaning we attach to the events.
- Fourth rung: Conclusions are drawn as to what this means for me.
- Fifth rung: Beliefs are adopted or reinforced
- Top of the Ladder: We act on these beliefs, the results of which becomes the foundation for new experiences and data.
This model clearly delineates the point at which we move from fact (data and experience) to interpretation of fact. Some additional things to consider in looking at this model include:
- The time it takes to get from the ground to the top of the ladder may only be nanoseconds.
- This is not meant to discourage us from making assumptions about events because that is impossible.
- An assumption is basically an untested hypothesis or a hunch.
- The critical point to become aware of is when our interpretation of the facts become, for us, the facts. At this point we shed curiosity and take on certainty. We are no longer interested in what else might be important to understand. We know what the real story is.
How often when sharing your perspective are you sharing it as fact? How often are your “facts” simply your interpretation and understanding of a situation? How often do we become committed to our interpretation such that we are unwilling to acknowledge and explore the perspective of another? It is essential that we are clear both to ourselves and with those to whom we are sharing when we are describing facts and when sharing interpretation.
The second distinction to make is between Positions and Interests. Roger Fisher and William Ury, in the paradigm shifting book, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In”, provide an elegant structure for understanding what needs to be done. The model in a nutshell looks like the following:
- When we come together to make decisions around difficult “Issues” we typically bring our “Positions” to the conversation.
- Our Positions usually include our perspective (interpretation) on the issue(s) along with our preferred solution(s).
- As stated in previous lessons, when Positions are perceived as compatible there is no problem. However, when our Positions threaten each other, we open ourselves to the “dark side” of conflict. This is where self-awareness and choice become critical.
- The choice is between defending our Positions or suspending judgment and seeking to understand the “Interests” driving the Positions of each of us. In this context, where a person’s Position expresses “what” they want, their underlying Interest are “why” this is important to them.
- A wise and effective decision is not found in a compromise between our Positions but rather in a solution that meets as many of our shared and independent Interests as possible.
In the context of this model the question when sharing is, am I sharing my position or my underlying interests (needs, values, objectives, etc.). Sharing our Position is similar to sharing our interpretation; it leaves little room or inclination for broader exploration. We become committed to these proposed solutions as if they are the truth or facts that must be defended or advocated at all costs. Fundamentally the conversation is most productive when we are focused on advocating and inquiring into our underlying interests.
When balancing advocacy and inquiry we are seeking to develop a shared understanding of a situation. The questions we are seeking to address jointly include:
- What is the current situation? (Facts)
- What does the situation mean to us? Individually? Collectively? (Interpretation)
- What are we working to accomplish in this situation? Individually? Collectively? (Interests)
As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of the distinctions between facts/interpretation and positions/interests.
- Identify conversations you have been in where lack of shared understanding of facts/interpretation of facts and positions/interests was problematic?
- Identify and describe a current situation where you see evidence of this confusion.
- Describe examples of the “Ladder of Inference” at play.
- Identify a current difficult conversation in which you may be involved. Where might you be confusing facts and interpretation of facts? What are equally viable alternative interpretations to the facts as you see them?
- Identify a current difficult conversation in which you may be involved. What are the issues at the heart of this conversation? What position have you adopted regarding the issues? What are your interests?