Opinions and observations can easily become entangled, resulting in thoughts based on interpretation and understanding instead of pure facts. When we separate observations from opinions, we distinguish between what actually happened and our opinion of what happened.
Example of an observation: We did not get the grant.
Example of an opinion: I really screwed up the grant proposal.
To help clients separate their opinions from what actually happened, we can ask them for the observations. What did you see or hear that led you to this viewpoint? Sometimes they hold a belief based on something that happened in early childhood and sometimes the belief emerges from whatever occurred just before the session. To support them in identifying clean observations we can ask them what a videotape would capture. 1
Observations are very different from judgments, assumptions, evaluations, interpretations and diagnosis, but we may have to peel several layers of the artichoke before we get to the heart of the matter. For instance, if you ask for an observation and your client says, “I’ve never been a strong leader,” as far as she’s concerned it’s a fact, especially since several people would agree with her. When you ask what happened that led her to think this, she’ll begin to move toward a clean observation. It may sound more like, “My board president thinks I need leadership training.”
Since no one can know what another thinks, we can ask, “And what did your board president actually say that leads you to imagine you need leadership training?” After a few rounds, your client is likely to identify the actual words. “Right after the meeting he asked me, ‘What leadership development programs have you attended?’”
We still don’t know what the board president thinks and our focus is on the client, and not the board president anyway! Maybe he admires your client’s leadership skills and wants to know where she got them. But at least your client has identified what was actually said. When we help clients state what they observed or heard, rather than how they interpret what happened, they begin to see how much they make up based on a comment or a raised eyebrow.
The importance of this step is in training clients to separate facts from inferences. Once they see how quickly they add embellishments to what actually happened, they can more easily choose an empowering viewpoint.
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