Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One interpretation or two?

This topic came up in our Swimming with Stories group call the other day. Swimming with Stories, if you didn't know, is a Ning group whose primary purpose is to coordinate monthly phone calls where we trade ideas related to story listening. Anyone working in this area is welcome to join us.

So anyway we were talking about perfectionism, and we were trading methods for doing our best work in spite of it. At one point I mentioned that one reason for over-polishing is to avoid the unpleasantness of nasty reactions by those receiving the work. That led to talking about my rules about separating statements and providing provoking perspectives when looking at stories. These rules, together, were one of the biggest discoveries I've made about working with stories. I came up with these rules mostly for the betterment of the people telling the stories, since their stories are often interpreted by others. But the rules also protect the people looking at the stories from preventive self-censorship, which is damaging to sensemaking. The second rule, of including multiple interpretations of every pattern, is essentially a form of steganography, of hiding a signal in noise, which has the dual benefits of freeing expression and providing better raw materials for sensemaking. I thought I'd write some about where that rule came from here.

Coming up with competing interpretations is one of the hardest parts of looking at stories, but at the same time it's one of the best parts. It's hard because sometimes you have to kick yourself to find another intepretation (especially when the obvious one is so overwhelmingly obvious that anyone could see it). But it's also one of the best parts, because interpretation is the good stuff, the meat, what leads most directly to useful sensemaking and decision support.

I've noticed a pretty strong and consistent difference in how people react to single versus multiple interpretations of patterns in stories (and answers to questions about them). When people encounter one interpretation, you can see them taking sides: do I agree or don't I? Their attention is on the interpretation, not on their own feelings or beliefs or experience. They put on their armor and prepare to do battle. It's clear that the one interpretation they see is the interpretation held by the author of the report: why else would they write it? And as the interpretations build through the report, people build explanations about the whole report: it's biased, or the author doesn't know what they are talking about, or the statistics are flawed. All of this stops sensemaking short and destroys any hope of productive thought or discussion.

In contrast, when you give people two or more competing interpretations of the same pattern, they turn their attention away from attacking or defending the interpretations and toward exploring their own experiences. This is what you want people to do: you want them to dwell on messy ambiguities, to use them, until they resolve themselves naturally (or don't). If the author has written two interpretations, the reader can't tell which is the author's own, so there is nothing to attack or defend, and there are no larger explanations about bias or ineptitude to build. The report author essentially walks out of the picture and lets the reader think. The reader can put away their armor and get out their maps and spyglasses. They can explore.

You could visualize a single interpretation as a point in space, like a pinpoint of light: it's on (right) or it's off (wrong). There is no room inside that point for anyone but the author of the report to stand. And they can't be anywhere but there, can they? But two interpretations define a line in space, and three interpretations define a plane. Since the author of the report has not identified their position in the space but has merely laid it out and stepped away, the space is empty, thus inviting. The reader naturally enters the space, finds their way around in it, and perhaps expands it as well. This is what sensemaking is about: finding our way around the world in order to make decisions about it. And this is what organizational and community narrative, ultimately, is about as well.

Let me give you a more concrete example of how this works. Say I am looking at stories people told about their telephone service. Say I've seen a pattern that the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to say they felt disappointed by the events in their story. If I give people one interpretation -- that younger people are not happy with their telephone service -- people start turning their binary switches off and on. Yes that's right, no that's wrong. But what happens if I say that younger people might not be happy with their telephone service, or older people might not understand the question, or younger people might be more willing to admit to disappointment (whereas older people might feel more pressure to say everything's fine), or younger people might be more disappointed about other things and it drifts over, and so on? I've marked out a space for exploration and invited people on a journey instead of setting up a straw man to be knocked down.

A final point: not everybody is comfortable with competing interpretations. Sometimes you have to argue with people to give them what they need. Sometimes people want The Answers, not mental stimulation, even when nobody can give them the answers. Stories don't provide answers, and patterns in stories don't provide answers, because none of this stuff is scientifically verifiable in repeatable experiments. It's not meant to be. It's all food for thought.

Stories and patterns in stories are like seeds: seeds of answers, seeds of potential conclusions, resolutions, explanations, plans. They can't grow into those things without the fertile soil of open, exploring minds and the light of discussion. Answers aren't seeds and they can't grow, no matter what soil they fall into. They are not food for thought, they are food for use, for consumption. For some goals, like building bridges and designing telephone cables, answers are what is needed, and growing conclusions would be ridiculous, even dangerous. But for complex topics of human interaction, food for thought is the only type of food worth having.

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