All meaning is self-created.
~Virginia Satir

I often tell prospects that I make up stories for a living. I listen to what my clients tell me, and then I piece things together based on what I’ve heard and what I know and what I know about the client and/or situation. “What do you think of this interpretation?” I’ll ask. “How does this sit with you?”

The truth is, as Virginia is alluding to, that we all make up stories. All day long about everything. That’s the way our brains work to make meaning of the world, and especially of the people around us. We interpret through our lenses, through our perceptions, through our personal filters and biases.

This is all fine. In fact, we have no choice but to do this. Again, this is how our brains work. The challenge is when we don’t realize we do this. When we think our interpretation is TRUTH. When we think the meaning we’ve given something is it’s absolute meaning.

And, unless we’re very careful, we will do this all the time too.

Years ago, I was “shadow coaching” a client (observing a real-time meeting, to give my client feedback). I don’t remember exactly what my client’s direct report told him; I just remember my client all but exploding. He eventually managed to calm down and to bring something of a productive close to the conversation, but when his direct report left the room, my client turned to me with exasperation.

“Can you believe he said that??” he asked me.

“Well,” I answered, “I’m not sure. But what I do know is that you reacted to what you thought he said to you, more than to what he actually said to you. You absolutely made up a story.”

“But anyone would know exactly what that meant!” my client responded.

“No, there could be many meanings,” I said. “I was sitting here, listening carefully, and I didn’t hear that which you are so certain he said…”

The conversation with my client went on for a while, and we, once again, pulled out the Ladder of Inference model (which details how we make up meanings and then get stuck in knowing those meanings are TRUE). We talked through the conversation, talked through the self-created meaning, and talked through the best way to move forward with his direct report.

We can’t help but do this. We do it all day long. We can learn to notice it, call it out, and possibly counteract it. We can learn to look for shared meaning and to be less set in our perspectives and filters.

How have you noticed yourself make up meanings? How have you noticed others? (Hint, it’s often easier to notice others doing this 😃)
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