The importance of Interpretive thinking: Here’s how to dig deep while still staying on track

You been waiting patiently for me to uncover this next level of thinking. It’s familiar and comes easily to most groups. The only problem is, once you let the checkered flag fly on Interpretative thinking, it can be a little to easy to get stuck in an endless loop of synthesis.

Let’s explore how to make the most out of your Interpretive thinking – without running out of fuel before the finish line.

What does the Interpretive level entail?

By this point, you’ve collected a good amount of factual and intuitive information at the Objective and Reflective level of thinking. Without these information-gathering phases, you won’t have all the details you need to start digging deeper into the issues.

And that’s what this level of thinking is all about: connecting the dots between all the information you’ve gathered so far, and discovering the deeper insights. Now is the time to ask the group what it all means.

This is where you start considering the broader implications of the topic or project in questions and its potential impacts, significance and purpose.

You’ve determined X and Y to be relevant, and now you have to ask yourselves aloud, “So what?”

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This is the last stop before you start making decisions, making it critical in the sequence.

How can it benefit my group or team of stakeholders?

During Interpretive level thinking, you will draw out the significance of information you’ve collected so far. When done properly, Interpretive-level discussions ensure all participants are heard, ultimately giving everyone a greater sense of ownership of the final decision you arrive at.

This level should also prevent others from feeling railroaded into agreeing to a certain conclusion, and that together you’ve thought about all the other people and processes that might be impacted by your actions.

The good news is, you should have no problem encouraging a group to dig into these meanings; in fact, it’s a level that people jump to quickly and easily — we’re all well trained to think at the interpretive level.

Sounds great – how could it go wrong?

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a meeting and you just can’t shake the feeling you’ve been here before.

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The same familiar faces, sipping from the same coffee mugs, repeating the same arguments you know you’ve heard before. Is it just you, or were you in this exact same meeting, discussing the exact same topic, last week? And last month? And last quarter.

Nope, it’s not your imagination. Welcome to over-interpretation.

When groups get to this level of thinking, it can be easy to get stuck. And that feels frustrating.

As a professional facilitator, I see this “Groundhog Day” syndrome all the time.

There are further red flags that you have entered interpretative thinking no-man’s-land. Maybe there’s a small handful of loud voices that are dominating all others. Maybe the discussion is superficial, avoiding thoughts on the future impacts of a decision or how other stakeholders will be impacted by a project.scott-van-daalen-7183-unsplash

Maybe one team’s conclusions to race ahead are taken as the final decision – even before the discussion happens. If this is the case, it’s time to act.

Recognize these progress-blockers

You will not move forward productively if you find some of these characteristics repeating themselves. If you do notice one of the following, try and reverse it by broadening the group’s thinking with some structure using  thought-provoking questions. Here’s how.

Conversation killer: Combat it with:
Starting with a foregone conclusion or inserting one into the conversation

(e.g. “We have made a decision to go left – who wants to go left?” “We believe this is the best approach, now what?”)

Broaden the conversation and explore the position by asking the question – what are some other options available to us?  What else might we do?  What are some other considerations?
Intellectualizing or abstracting
(e.g.“We need to live into our values and walk the talk, set an example for the industry, be the change we want to see, aim for 110%”)
Bring these high-minded, noble ideas back down to Earth with practical examples. For example: What does living our values look like? What are some things that we might do? What specifically does setting an example look like?
Judging responses as right or wrong

 

If you have an opinion on what someone else is saying, remove your good/bad judgement and seek to clarify meaning instead. For example, “Tell me more about what is behind your thinking?  What would others think? What would be different about how we might do this now, versus what we have done before?  What could we do to make sure it works this time?”
Not getting different perspectives

 

If the same person is doing the talking for the group, or the same opinions are shared without a wider view, ask for other perspectives. “Is there another perspective” or “I’d like to hear from someone else” or “Put yourself in a different stakeholder’s shoes, what might they think about this and how might the issue be perceived?”
Allowing the loudest voice to provide only one alternative

 

Often the person who is most forceful with their assertations will win an argument, or dominate a discussion without much challenge. This makes the meeting feel more like an announcement (where a decision has already been made) rather than a true debate.

As above, consider it your duty to speak up and offer a counterpoint to this single perspective. Ask for other views in a round robin format – ask each person to share their viewpoint. “What do you think?”

Break the group into smaller groups, ask small groups to share their thinking with each other. Then ask the groups to share what they discussed as a small group. This will help get other voices into the conversation.

 

How do you know your Interpretive level of thinking is going well?
You know you’ve arrived at effective Interpretive thinking when you find people on your team:

  • Discussing implications, impacts, alternatives, consequences of a decision or project
  • Having spirited discussions about these lines of inquiry
  • Pushing into the depths of the topic, the “what ifs” and “what’s next”
  • Thinking about how others are affected
  • Discovering what the broader story means to the group or organization

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When “I level” of thinking is fully explored, people feel like they are looking at the topic comprehensively and really understanding what it means now and what it could mean in the future.

The group feels they have been meaningfully engaged in the conversation, have had opportunity to share their views and feel fully heard. Then, once you move on to the decisional phase, each and every participant is much more likely to support the group’s final outcome.

Good luck with your discussion!

 

 

Facts are friendly

What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted?  What did you hear? What graphs did you notice?  What colours do you see? 

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response. They are perplexed. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.

…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.  

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.

Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.

“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

 …. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing?  Who was there?  Whose ball was it? What happened first?  Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it? 

You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.

…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation. 

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems ‘too simple for words’.  It accomplishes a couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.

Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘alternate facts’, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement. You can see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as ‘vintage’.  I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

Objective data grounds a conversation

It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like – “everyone knows that”, “these people are too busy for this”, “we don’t have enough time”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

When I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.  

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data. When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome. Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation. A former NASA flight director talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation.  They start with a series of questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?

Helpful objective level questions

What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:

  • What words did you hear someone say?
  • What did they actually say?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? hearing? doing?
  • What happened first? second? third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • Where were you?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?

Facts are friendly

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”.  It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant.  The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed. 

 

 

 

 

Our deepest Self, is a verb

“The Self is a relation, which in relating to itself and willing itself to be itself, is grounded transparently in the power that posits it.”  – Soren Kierkegaard

I have been asked to preview some chapters in a book that a facilitator colleague of mine is writing. She is digging deep into the philosophies underlying the Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodologies to preserve them for future practitioners and facilitators.

While I am delighted to be asked to take a look at her first draft, I confess to being a bit overwhelmed by their depth and more than a bit intimidated by the intellectual breadth of the philosophers, such as Kierkegaard from whose ideals, ToP methodologies have been developed.

The founding philosophies of ToP point to the intentionality of being self, and the attentionality of examining self. They say that we exist as a being; but our acts of examining ourselves; relating to ourselves and making intentional choices about ourselves are the essential components of being. To be, to examine our being, allows for growth, discovery and evolution.

What this really means is being ourselves is dynamic – our Self is a verb.

To quote the author, “When I reflect on myself, I am standing outside my self-in-the-world looking at myself as I am in the world. I can observe my activities, characteristics and experience and the ways I have been with others. I can see what is happening around me and I can sense my own reactions to the events in my life.” 

As complex as these ideas are, they allowed me to fully understand why we do things the way we do, when we use the ToP facilitation methods. One of our go to techniques is the brainstorm, where we ask people to generate ideas, and then we put those ideas, one by one, on a wall. Next we examine the ideas, individually and in relationship to other ideas.

Individual brainstorm ideas

This act of removing an idea from its origins and examining it relation to other ideas allows us to step away from our assumptions around that idea which creates space for something new to emerge. We have actively related our ideas to themselves.

In so doing, we end up with new relationships, new interpretations and an evolved understanding. Our initial idea became a verb and turned into something else.

New interpretation of existing ideas

On a more practical level, if, while I am in the middle of a heated discussion with a colleague, I am able to observe my behaviour and understand my feelings, and I can create a new understanding of my actions (my self, relating to itself) and recognize that I don’t want to antagonize my colleague, I can choose a different approach (and willing itself to be itself). In this manner, I can find a new interpretation of my colleague’s actions which will lead me to a different outcome.

A current term for self reflection is mindfulness, the movement, appropriated from ancient Buddhist roots. The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. In other words, relating self to itself. Mindfulness has gained popularity as a method to handle emotions, by observing and becoming aware of those emotions.

According to Wikipedia “…studies have shown that mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity”.

Mindfulness also has a relationship to emotional intelligence which says our emotions are part of our social operating system and our first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to be aware of our emotions and our relationship with those emotions. Once we have some awareness we can start to work our emotional skills and become more emotionally intelligent.

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject of mindfulness or emotional intelligence, but the relationship between the philosophies which underpin ToP facilitation methods and what we call mindfulness and emotional intelligence appear strongly related to me.

All of this is a long way to say, without this deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy or why the ToP method requires a specific process, it is easy to write the methods off as overly process centric. It is also easy for anyone to think they can run with them after a brief exposure. The reality is that ToP methods require study, practice and reflection in order for a practitioner or facilitator to become highly effective.

Experienced ToP practitioners will tell you that ToP facilitation methods are their go to methods, that very little rivals their effectiveness. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the philosophies, I am ever more committed to my go to methods.

Full disclosure, I am trained by ICA Associates in Canada on ToP methods and find myself wholly absorbed by their depth.  ICA Associates is Canada’s only trainer of ToP methods

 

 

 

 

 

Training & facilitation: similar but different

Oct 7, 2015

“Is there a difference between a facilitator and a trainer?”  

During a break, in a recent facilitation, a participant began to describe to me, the challenges her organization had experienced delivering a training program. The trainer that was hired didn’t seem to hit the mark for the organization. The participant told me that the trainer did too much talking; didn’t draw out the people in the training session and didn’t create enough dialogue. So I asked the question: “Did you hire a facilitator, or a trainer?”

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There is much common ground between facilitators and trainers. Many facilitators train and many trainers facilitate. They share over-lapping skills sets. and perform similar activities. Some common traits for both trainers and facilitators include:

  • thoughtful, articulate and responsive to questions
  • able to adapt to the needs of people in the room
  • able to keep participants engaged and interacting
  • able to manage to an agenda 

Trainers are additionally responsible for

  • delivering a specific learning objective 
  • designing and controlling a process
  • managing room dynamics 
  • and bringing content expertise to the discussion

The last point is important – trainers are generally content experts. Their criticality stems from their ability to illuminate content, to aid comprehension of a subject, and to help participants engage with the concepts. This is important and makes them persuasive in their delivery. A trainer will generally be at the centre of any discussion in the room.

Facilitators, like trainers, are responsible for: 

  • designing and controlling a process 
  • managing room dynamics

The roles begin to diverge in how an event unfolds. Facilitators are also responsible for:  

  • tapping into the knowledge of the room to generate the necessary content 
  • listening carefully in order to ask the next question 
  • gaining commitment to action and follow through to achieve a desired outcome
  • remaining steadfastly neutral

A facilitator listens more than they speak. They ask carefully considered questions, aimed at provoking ever more thoughtful responses; allowing the room to discover its wisdom. 

According to ICA Associates, the focus for facilitators is on enabling groups to process their experiences, think things through, form consensus and make plans and decisions. The facilitator’s energy is dedicated to developing process and tools to assist people in achieving their objectives.  

In short – a trainer owns content; a facilitator owns process.

Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies sums up his conversation with a trainer who also facilitates: “I like facilitation, but I love training. Because when you’re facilitating, you really have to listen to them. And that’s work!”

After our discussion, the individual that I was talking with indicated that there was a strong desire in their training program to have the participants share their knowledge; build community and network; and learn from each other. At the conclusion of our discussion, she thought that a facilitator might have been a better choice. They just hadn’t understood the difference.