Quite a while ago I gave a course to prospective mediators. One of the most important concepts I covered was the difference between a circumstance and the meaning we give it. Why is that difference so important? Because it is the source of so many conflicts! The more clear we understand the distinction between a circumstance and the meaning or interpretation we give it, the better we can conclude our conversations.

How does that work?

Imagine: Something happens, for example you have a meeting scheduled with your supervisor and you arrive five minutes late. That is the circumstance. You and your supervisor can give drastically different interpretations to that circumstance.

Your supervisor could, for example, think to themselves, ‘Good thing they are a little late, I can finish reading these last few pages’ or ‘Now that X is late once again, I think X is terrible in time management, we probably need to discuss this’ or even still another possibility ‘What time is it again? Is it already time for our meeting?’ With each of these thoughts, your supervisor has a specific perception.

Your interpretation and your perception can set you on a different direction of thinking: ‘Shoot, I’m late again, what are they thinking?’ or ‘Those few minutes too early or too late, they don’t really make a difference do they?’ or ‘They are always late anyways, I’ll give them a taste of their own medicine.’ And this is how you give different interpretations to the same situation.

The different interpretations given to the event are the source of the conflict: Your supervisor thinks you are terrible at time management, you don’t think those few minutes later really matter, and you therefore feel hurt and defensive if your supervisor begins attacking your for your bad planning… And that is only one of the possible scenarios.


Everyone always gives their meaning to a situation, and the different perceptions lead to a conversation about it in the best case scenario; and in a worst case scenario, it will lead to an argument and annoyance. If you enter the conversation thinking it will not go well, think about the source of the disagreement, and what are the meanings behind the situation the two people have? If you can figure that out, you’ve already assured the conversation will go much more smoothly.

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