Have you watched the news lately? It is always interesting to me that with any given news story, the actual story, the “what happened”, takes a short time for any news program to describe. Yet it is often followed by experts or people from opposites sides of the story telling us in great length why their view of the actual story is what really happened or what the real meaning is behind the original news story. This happens in our work and in our personal relationships too. Something happens and people end up on opposite sides defending their point of view. Feelings get hurt. Sometimes people end up not being able to work with each other. Sometimes these issues become so big that even our closest personal relationships end. What if it didn’t have to end badly. What if we could walk ourselves back from that highly emotional edge? Guess what we can! Learning the difference between circumstance and interpretation is the tool that will help in these situations.

Let’s start with some definitions. For the purpose of this exercise the word “Circumstance” is a fact that everyone can agree on. If just one person disagrees, it’s not a circumstance or a fact. For example when we look at the thermometer on a cold winter day the temperature could read 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone can look at the thermometer and agree the temperature outside is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So the circumstance is “the thermometer shows the temperature outside to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit”.

For the purpose of this exercise the word “Interpretation” is each person’s individual interpretation, opinion or point of view. For example when the temperature outside is 32 degrees my personal interpretation is “Baby it’s cold outside” and I will be bundled up with a warm coat, gloves and a scarf. A teenager’s interpretation might be “It’s not cold outside”. The teenager might go out without a coat in shorts and a T-shirt.

When tension begins to run high on the job or in our personal relationships, we can step back and ask “What facts can we all agree on?” Everyone is allowed their own personal interpretation. When we respect and set aside individual interpretation and focus on the circumstance (the facts we can all agree on), we now have common ground to begin to ask what do we want to do, accomplish or change about the circumstance?

It is important to note that it only takes one person to effect change. So we don’t have to teach others this tool. We can simply ask “What facts we can we all agree on?” Then we can ask “What is the one thing that we can all agree on to do about that?”

When we set aside interpretation and focus on circumstance we begin to work with each other rather than against each other.