man-listening-hand-to-earWe all have our style of reacting. Some people are submarines and some are destroyers. When people react with their emotions the destroyers will throw out depth charges seeking their targets. This creates waves of various sizes and shapes. Submarines are under the surface plotting and maneuvering when to fire the “surprise”. Both types, when following their emotions, create barriers to healthy communication. The tactics are just different. But the results are destructive. Destroyers tend to be extroverted and forceful, and submarines tend to be more introverted and manipulative.

Every conversation involves four layers. According to Leadership IQ, each of the four layers feeds into the next. The four layers are Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, and Ends (F.I.R.E.).

  • Facts are those things that can be proven empirically. They are rendered true. It doesn’t stop there.
  • Interpretation of those facts. Objectivity is only a wistful illusion. From this we develop a
  • Reaction that is usually driven by our emotions. And that reaction is directed toward our desired
  • End.

According to all the experts in neurology and emotional intelligence, being aware of the way we are wired has tremendous benefits. At the center of our brain is the limbic system that controls our decision making in the context of uncertainty and high stress. These high pressured situations are where we make snap judgments when there is no time to think things through. Immediate reaction is necessary and a mechanistic approach to decision making is not sufficient. The facts are instantly interpreted leading to an appropriate action and desired end.

Note: This works great in a jungle setting. When I was in Botswana I experienced this phenomenon on more than one occasion. The main campsite was about 200 yards from my tent. In the dark of night I could hear distant animal noises. Then there came a rustling sound from the bushes. I immediately took flight and retreated up the stairs to my elevated tent in world record time.

The FIRE model was working to perfection and design. The Facts? Sounds of wild animals followed by rustling in the nearby bush. The Interpretation? A lion or leopard which were known to be in the area, and nocturnal as well, i.e. they hunt at night. The Reaction? Move as fast as possible. The End? Make it to the safety of my tent.

Here’s the distortion. Most of the facts we encounter are not life threatening. Yet we tend to treat them the same way. Therefore the flight or fight scenario is used in the wrong context. So we use the FIRE approach by default. It takes over the moment we hear trouble. No more facts needed. We have all we need to react.

How might this look in the office? Tim shows up late. There is a team meeting in 15 minutes, and he was supposed to get some materials to the presenter (who happens to be his boss), a half an hour ago. It seems as though people have been careless lately with their commitments. Nobody seems to be taking the rules of protocol and punctuality seriously anymore. Add to that the seemingly lack of dependability on the part of Tim’s co-workers. So Bill, his boss, has seen all he needs to see. No more facts are necessary. Late is late, which translates into “slothful”, “inconsiderate”, and “undependable”. Bill is normally rational, but enough is enough. So Bill makes an immediate interpretation (just like in the jungles of Botswana where my knowledge of lions in the area made me fear a man-eating predator instead of a guinea foul, which it very well could have been).

Bill goes off, “Tim is late. He doesn’t take this job or its commitments seriously.” The FACTS have now been INTERPRETED. The REACTION follows naturally, along with the desired END. So Bill could set down the law. “So from now on you be early, or there will be penalties.”

What if we took the time to gather more facts. Ask Tim why he was late. You discover he was helping Mary (who recently had a baby), bring in all the reports that were in boxes too heavy for her to carry by herself. The reports were for the meeting and Tim was making sure they would be there. After all, this was his boss’ meeting.

His interpretation of the facts could have gone from “a lack of dependability and commitment” to “an act of teamwork and kindness”. This is one F.I.R.E. you don’t want to douse.

Observational Listening is seeing what people do and say— from their perspective.

It’s a powerful skill– especially when stakes are high and emotions are edgy.