In my last post I wrote about how we generate our reactions to experiences. I was sharing about speaking in my church and afterward noting two people making what I assumed were disparaging comments about my message (and me). Let me pick up the story where my mind was running wild and I concluded that it was a mistake for me to have agreed to speak at church and that I’m such a loser.
What happened inside my head is a rapid sequence of “meaning making” where I took a little bit of “data” and interpreted it based on some previous data and interpretations. I connected some dots in a way that seemed to make sense. My emotions were triggered in the process. I ended up coming to some conclusions that would be the basis for my actions. I like to call this sequence the Circle of Inference (derived from the “Ladder of Inference” by Chris Argyris). We all do this sequence of steps all the time. It is the way we make sense of our world. It is the way our brains work. The biggest problem is how errors enter the process of our “meaning making” and set us up for making more and bigger misunderstandings in the future. Let me explain.
The Circle of Inference begins with “data”—which simply means the raw information of what happened. Data is what surveillance cameras and microphones would have captured if focused on the event. Any observer would agree on the data. It is simply the raw facts of what occurred in the situation.
The first step down the path of the Circle of Inference is the selection of data. We only notice some of what went on. We only saw or heard some of the data. There is always data that we don’t factor into our analysis. For whatever reason we just missed it or disregarded it as irrelevant.
The next step in the Circle of Inference is that we begin to assign some meaning to what we saw. When that guy was looking in my direction and rolled his eyes, I assigned meaning, based on past experiences, that he was talking in a disparaging way about me. In effect I was writing a story in my mind around those data points (those past experiences). The story fills in any gaps in meaning. I then make assumptions based on the meanings that I added—and often those assumptions are about a person’s motivations behind their actions. I assumed that he didn’t like me and I also assumed that many others must also share the same perspective as those two. My emotion of shame was beginning to take over my thoughts. But it doesn’t stop there.
The meaning and assumption steps are closely followed by drawing conclusions. In this case, I was not only drawing conclusions about those people but I was also concluding that I was a failure and that I was such an idiot for putting myself in that situation. I resolve to never make that mistake again—in this context or any other.
Those conclusions have led to beliefs I now hold. They tell me that I am not gifted in speaking and that contexts like this are not safe. I also believe that the wisest choice is to hide. I wish I could just walk out of church, but that carries its own set of shame messages, so I just try to make myself invisible and small.
Next post, we’ll unpack this a bit more and see how this process circles back on itself and sets me up for compounding errors in perception and understanding.