The power of interpretation

April 30, 2007

I’m taking the opportunity here in New York to catch up with some colleagues who practice in a similar way to myself (not a lot of us back in Ireland!). Over lunch this week I had a fascinating conversation with one colleague about how consultants (particularly those of us who are psychodynamically inclined) participate in listserves. The impulse if you’re a psychodynamic consultant is to wonder about the question or dilemma rather than answer a question. Very often in business settings it’s that ability to step back that generates interesting material – don’t take the obvious for granted etc. But when a group of consultants gather on a listserve there is often more energy devoted to exploring the question rather than offering an answer.
This got me thinking about the power of interpretation. A consultant is given, and accepts tremendous power in organisational systems to interpret what others can’t make sense of. How that interpretation is done can be a very creative endeavour – but ultimately it’s the interpretation that a consultant is being hired to offer. The permission that is sought and received to interpret is a delicate negotiation. When a group of consultants gather in virtual space to converse it can be a different matter – the jump to interpret is somehow assumed rather than negotiated and this makes me rather uncomfortable because I think this needs to be made explicit. I may ask a question of you as a colleague but that’s not the same as inviting you to interpret as a consultant.
Ultimately this is a boundary issue which arises all the time in work settings – am I interpreting from a coaching? counselling? consulting? perspective? Am I throwing my weight around to show how smart I am? Am I endeavouring to close down any difference in the discussion by using my interpretative authority to say it “as it is”?
The lunch time discussion offered so many interesting perspectives that I’ll be ruminating over them for quite some time to come – but it has made me consider the explicit and not so explicit ways I negotiate with clients and colleagues and the assumption of authority which each brings.