One simple statement really stood out to me from a conversation this week: “remember that you are always hypothesizing.” During an executive coaching class, my colleagues and I were role-playing coaching scenarios around dealing with perceived resistance from a client. Note the key word, “perceived.” The group discussion and activity were meant to illustrate the fact that in coaching relationships, what we perceive as resistance might actually be indicative of something else. If we can acknowledge that our perceptions are just our interpretations of what we are experiencing as we interact with another person, then we open ourselves to the possibility that our interpretations might not be accurate. It’s easy to misinterpret because we are, in fact, always hypothesizing.
According to Merriam-Webster, a hypothesis may be defined as:
- “An idea or theory that is not proven but that leads to further study or discussion”
- “An assumption or concession made for the sake of argument”
- “A tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test the logical or empirical consequences”
Notice that a commonality across these definitions is the element of making an assertion for the purpose of verifying or validating it. A hypothesis is ground for further action; it is an antecedent and not an end result. Miscommunication is often attributable to misinterpretation, but we can avoid this fundamental error by noticing our assumptions and investigating them with a sense of openness and curiosity. The challenge in any interaction—whether your role is a coach, manager, advisor, teacher, peer, or friend—is to become truly curious about the other person’s experience so that testing our assumptions is an act of gaining clarity about that individual’s experience from their perspective rather than from our own.
Contrary to common belief, hypothesis testing is not a function of proving our theory, but rather it is a function of trying to uncover whatever truth exists. Yes, in scientific pursuits, we hope to furnish evidence in support of our hypothesis, but this is not the case in pursuits of human relations. True communication and connection with others requires humility and acceptance of the fact that our assertions and conclusions may be incorrect. If we are always hypothesizing then we must also be ever curious and open to alternatives, asking, “What else might explain this? What might I not be aware of?”
Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Naught-Han), is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, teacher, Zen Master, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his activism and advocacy of nonviolent solutions to conflict. You do not need to endorse Buddhist philosophy in order to appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s approachable writing style and germane messaging. In one of his seminal books, Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the quote above to explain what is needed in order to achieve true understanding in communication. If we only seek to validate our own preconceived notions without acknowledging that our way of thinking might be flawed, then we will not be able to truly understand whatever we are facing.
Each interaction, each conversation, each moment of life is associated with some image in our minds. We create a story about that image, and Ansel Adams reminds us that we are not the only ones looking at our pictures. Others are involved in those interactions, conversations, and moments. Two photographers can stand aside one another taking in the same landscape, but the images they see and capture through their lenses will be different depending on what and where they choose to focus. Two viewers may look upon the same photograph and see or describe it in very different ways depending upon their interpretation and the meaning they assign to what they see. It’s all about how you make sense of what you observe.
In the art of communication, the skilled performer is ever conscious that the image seen may not reflect the one captured, and the story created by the viewer may not match the one being projected by the sender. If you truly seek to understand another person’s point of view, you must be willing to see the world through their lens. Like photography and all fine arts, perspective-taking is a skill which is developed over time through diligent practice, keen observation, acute trial and error, and endless wonder about the natural world. You are always creating images and painting pictures from your own pallet of interpretation. How might someone else see it differently? What would it be like to view the world through another lens? What is the potential benefit and beauty of considering another point of view? What else might be present? What else could sharpen your image? What are you not seeing? In what other ways could this situation being conceptualized or understood?
Remember that you are always hypothesizing, so ask yourself, “what am I not yet aware of?”
About the Author: Sarah is a Professional Services Intern at The Ken Blanchard Companies. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Consulting Psychology, and her research is based on mindfulness. Contact: email@example.com.