What Actually Happened?: Differentiating Between Observations and Evaluations

As human beings it seems we’re very uncomfortable being in the “don’t know why” space, and we are very quick to make meaning out of everything. Sadly, it often seems we’d rather believe a negative story than hang out in the not-knowing space. Do you recognize this habit in yourself?  Noticing the stories we tell ourselves and realizing that they are stories—as opposed to reality—is not only key to effective and connecting communication, but also a primary component of emotional freedom.

-Ali Miller, MFT

 by Ali Miller, MFTwww.AliMillerMFT.com
www.BefriendingOurselves.com

J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, is known to have said that observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence. Nonviolent Communication invites us to practice this “highest form of intelligence” by getting clear on the difference between observations and evaluations before we express ourselves. Stating a concrete and specific observation is the first step of the NVC model of self-expression.

I like to think of this first step as the “What actually happened?” stage. When things get heated and needs are unmet, we so often lose touch with the facts and focus on our stories, interpretations, and evaluations. You know, all those thoughts like: “She’s lazy,” “He’s always late,” “I’m not good enough,” “They don’t care about me.”  Those fun ones
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NVC asks us to recognize the difference between what actually happened and what I’m telling myself about what happened.

Noticing the stories we tell ourselves and realizing that they are stories—as opposed to reality—is not only key to effective and connecting communication, but also a primary component of emotional freedom. When the person you have a crush on doesn’t respond to your email within 24 hours and you tell yourself it’s because he’s not interested in you, or that it’s because you’re unlovable, those are stories. The observation is simply that you didn’t receive an email from him within 24 hours. We don’t know why until he tells us.

When your student is looking down at her phone and typing in the middle of class and you tell yourself it’s because she doesn’t respect you, that’s a story. The observation is simply that the student is looking down at her phone and is typing in class. Again, we don’t know why unless she tells us.

As human beings it seems we’re very uncomfortable being in the “don’t know why” space, and we are very quick to make meaning out of everything. Sadly, it often seems we’d rather believe a negative story than hang out in the not-knowing space. Do you recognize this habit in yourself?

NVC invites us to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N this habitual meaning-making mechanism and become aware of what happened (observation), notice any thoughts we’re having about what happened (evaluations/interpretations/judgments), and recognize that they’re not one and the same.  It’s like that bumper sticker I’ve seen on the road: Don’t believe everything you think.

Getting clear on the observation helps us communicate more clearly and decreases the likelihood that the person we’re talking to is going to get defensive. It is a way of establishing common ground. Rather than starting the conversation with an evaluation such as, “Remember that time you were so rude and inconsiderate?” NVC invites us to start the conversation with a clear observation: “Remember how on Tuesday you left three dishes in the sink?” Which line do you think you’d be more receptive to as the listener?

Sticking to the facts like this is particularly hard to do when emotions are running high, when we’re particularly triggered, when precious needs are not met. And these are the times when being able to distinguish between observations and evaluations is most helpful for staying self-connected and (re)building connection with another.

It takes practice to not respond out of habit, so next time you’re triggered, I invite you to do the following observation practice:
  1. Stop.
  2. Breathe.
  3. Notice what you’re telling yourself. What stories are you believing about yourself or the other person? Write them down so you can see them outside of your head.
  4. What actually happened? Write it down, and try not to use any evaluations, interpretations, or judgments. Write down simply what happened, as if you were capturing what a video camera would capture.
I find translating evaluations into observations to be one of the most challenging aspects of NVC, so I hope you’ll go easy on yourself as you practice this skill. Remember, according to the Indian sage, it’s the highest form of human intelligence!

As always, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes and what this post brings up for you.

Ali Miller, MFT has offices in San Francisco and Berkeley where she provides psychotherapy, couples counseling, and facilitates women’s groups called “Authentic Connection.”  She is also available for consultation and trainings to therapists who want to incorporate NVC into their therapeutic work. She can be reached at 415-820-1433.

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