Strengthening Leadership Insight: Separating Fact from Interpretation

A critically important leadership skill — and one might argue, a critically important life skill — is the ability to distinguish facts from the interpretation of facts.

Exceptional leaders are able to extract facts from the narrative of a story before intentionally considering their meaning. Why is this important? Because the things we have issues with in life are typically not facts, but our interpretation of those facts.

Fact vs. Interpretation of Fact

“We do not see the world as it exists, we see it through our own filter,” said Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching. “That causes a lot of disagreement. People can look at the same thing and assign very different meanings. A crucial element of executive coaching addresses the natural tendency to treat our interpretation of a fact as the fact itself.”

Devin was chronically late to team meetings. This infuriated the team leader. “Devin doesn’t care enough about the work of the team or respect the value of other members’ time,” fumed the team leader. “Devin is a drag on our performance and needs to be removed from the team.”

But wait. The only fact is that Devin consistently arrives late at team meetings. Everything else is an interpretation on the part of the team leader. Importantly, the team leader’s decision to remove Devin from the team is based on interpretation, not the fact itself.

A little creative brainstorming will reveal numerous possible alternative interpretations for Devin’s tardiness. Perhaps childcare arrangements make it impossible to arrive on-time for an early-morning team meeting. Devin may be delayed by a supervisor at a meeting that is regularly scheduled just prior to the team meeting.

“My interpretation of a fact gives me my experiences of life,” observes Perry. “One interpretation makes me angry and upset with Devin. Another makes me want to learn more and be helpful. The fact is the same — Devin is always late — but the experience, and the decisions I make as a result, are up to me.” For more about the assumptions we make and how that impacts leadership, read Arden Coaching’s article: “Why Can Being Aware of Assumptions as a Leader Make a Difference in Outcomes?”

Since interpretations are made up by us, we can change them and have a different experience. This not only develops you as a leader, you can assist others as well. Working with someone to shift their interpretations can help them create a new approach to their situation.

A Five-Step Exercise to Separate Fact from Interpretation

Executive coaching activities that explore fact and interpretation develop clarity, mindfulness, and insight. Here’s an exercise to help you begin:

Write a story about a work situation that is really frustrating or worrying you. It is important to put your story on paper. Include what is happening, who the players are, why they are behaving the way they are, and what things feel like for you.

Now read your own story. As you do:

  1. Carefully identify and list facts in one column, and your interpretations in a second column
  2. Now add a third column, and brainstorm possible alternative interpretations. These should be other possible interpretations of the same facts.
  3. Choose an interpretation that’s empowering. That is, select an interpretation that changes your perspective and creates positive, alternate viewpoints and potential action-steps or decisions
  4. Practice doing this
  5. Practice it more!

The powerful message here is, change the interpretation and you change the experience. Change the experience and you’ll change how you interact with people and make decisions.

To learn more about executive coaching and leadership development, contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.