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BriefConsulting 1.8: Generosity

Generosity seems an unlikely element of BriefConsulting. Brevity implies an economical, perhaps even stingy allocation of at least time, so where does generosity fit in? It fits in right beside interpretation.

I’ve explained that Brief Consulting avoids interpreting behavior as pathology, transforming what might otherwise seem dysfunctional into merely differently or curiously functioning. This little flip demonstrates generous interpretation in action: Interpret difference as difference rather than pathology. If I couldn’t possibly know, I’m free to make up any meaning that works best for me. Heck, I could even get curious and ask.

See how this small shift might shorten the length of a consulting engagement? Sometimes mindreading or body-language interpreting seems like a shortcut, but it usually turns into the longer way around. If the client’s words and the music don’t seem to match, I could initiate a controversy by ascribing my ungenerous meaning or encourage understanding by simply pointing out what I see and asking what it might mean to my client.

I tune up my generous interpreter by engaging in what I call High Quality Consultant Humor. HQCH involves deliberately trying to make the least generous possible interpretation instead of the most generous possible one. In this game, when the client sneezes, she’s Typhoid Mary. If she stumbles, she’s clearly stupid. The overt absurdity of HQCH exercises the interpreting muscles, reminding me that every impression involves interpretation. I’m fully capable of making mountains out of molehills, also molehills out of mountains. Nothing simply ‘is,’ and my own tenacious ability to see as if I weren’t interpreting always stands between me and brevity. My clients’, too.

Generous interpretation opens possibilities, inviting the client to start letting go of their certainties along with me. It might not be the cure to The Certainty Problem, but it’s a useful way to start disassembling it.

In the Spanish viceroy system, a bureaucracy that lasted more than 500 years, each viceroy reported directly to the king. Communications being slow in those days, a dispatch from the king, responding to a viceroy’s report, could take more than a year to reach an individual viceroy. So, the viceroys adopted a simple rule for interpreting directions from the king — The King Is Wise. This rule encouraged each local viceroy to interpret the king’s direction in some way that would preserve the apparent wisdom of the king, even if this meant utterly shifting his specific instructions.

In the same way today, we might be well-served to remember that the quality of our own experience might depend upon how we interpret our experiences, and not on the specific actions we see. Driving, I’m endlessly confronted with absolutely mysterious movements of the cars and pedestrians around me. It’s easy for me to quickly, mindlessly conclude that I’m surrounded by jerks and idiots. My interpretations might seem well-justified until I consider the personal cost of the less than generous conclusions I draw. I have the choice, and not a necessarily clear choice, to more generously interpret their mysterious behaviors. One interpretation leaves me surrounded by idiots and jerks while another might put me in the middle of people who just haven’t learned to drive very well yet. My choice.

Many of the most common complaints seem to come from some unsupportable conclusions, slight variations on deciding the king must be stupid. I, for one, prefer to be ruled by a wise king. Curious how the difference, a small but potentially really important difference, always was up to me.

©2012 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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