Making observations, interpreting, and experiencing are three ways of approaching experience. Let’s see how they relate to conflict resolution, personal growth, and spiritual growth.
Making Observations: Describing Experience Without Evaluating It
Describing something means putting it into words, and evaluating something means assessing its value—its goodness, beauty, or truth. In Nonviolent Communication (or NVC), an observation is a description of experience—an description that’s free of evaluation. Observations describe experiences, without assessing the value of those experiences.
You can use observations in conflict situations, to help the other person understand what’s stimulating your feelings (that is, what’s happening that you like or dislike). You can also use observations for self-connection and personal growth—for instance, as part of a journaling process—to get more clear yourself about what’s stimulating your feelings. Evaluations tend to be provocative; by leaving them out of your observations, you help everyone stay more centered.
Interpreting: Assessing the Meaning of Experience
Interpreting something means assessing its meaning. Like evaluations, interpretations can also be provocative, when we interpret things in different ways. Unfortunately, there’s no way to describe experience without also interpreting it. In putting words to experience, we interpret it. Facts are just interpretations we agree are true. So you can forget about making observations that are completely free of interpretation. What you can do when making observations is keep them factual (that is, non-controversial); you can leave out extra layers of meaning that others may not agree with.
Every experience has many possible interpretations—so don’t mistake your interpretations for indisputable facts. Think of a time when you were absolutely convinced that something was true, and later you learned something that totally changed your perspective. You had an experience that you were interpreting one way—then you found a better way of interpreting it. Letting go of our attachment to interpretations can improve our relationships and support personal growth, giving us more mental flexibility. It can allow us to acknowledge the validity of other people’s perspectives, even when those perspectives differ from our own (as they often do in conflict situations).
Experiencing: Observing Without Interpreting
Observing means noticing your experience. There’s a big difference between making observations and observing. Making observations about an experience requires putting it into words. But observing an experience doesn’t require putting it into words; you can observe an experience without interpreting it.
Experiencing means observing without interpreting—that is, noticing your experience without trying to put it into words or analyze it intellectually. What’s experiencing good for? A lot, it turns out. Experiencing life makes it vibrant and juicy. When all we do is interpret life, we miss the joy of experiencing it; then life gets dry and dull. When we’re triggered, experiencing our feelings (that is, allowing ourselves to feel them) can free us from reactive patterns—this can help us stay more centered in conflict situations, and can support our personal growth. And looking closely at experiencing itself can foster insight and spiritual awakening—this is the basis for many insight practices.
Here’s a side note for fans of the Pathways to Liberation Matrix. In version 1.2 of the Matrix, it seems to me that the row on observing packs several skills into one. To unpack and clarify these skills (in future versions of the Matrix), I’d start by replacing observation with experience and observations with experiences, everywhere they appear in this row. Then I’d add two new rows, for the skills making observations (free of evaluation) and experiencing (without interpreting). I have not discussed these ideas with the other Matrix co-authors yet.