You’ve stayed somewhere longer than you expected, and your car is now the only one in a darkened parking lot. You feel uneasy as you make your way across the asphalt, and then you hear a noise. Looking to your left, you see a shadowy figure walking in your direction. You quicken your pace; he quickens his. You begin to run; so does he! Breathless, you reach your car and fumble for your keys. Before you can find the right one, he overtakes you and says, “Ma’am, you forgot your purse.”
The misunderstanding that happened in the story happens every day in big ways and in small. It’s caused by a coping mechanism that helps us make sense of our world, and you can remember how it works by using the acronym “S.W.I.F.T.”
“Stimulus” is defined as “something arousing interest.” Something that stimulates. It could be something that happens to you or something you just hear about. It most often comes from one of your five senses, and it starts a chain reaction in your brain – the next step of which is…
Most of the time, our first response to a Stimulus is to wonder about it. “Why did she do that?” “Where did that come from?” “Why is this happening now?” If we’ve experienced the Stimulus before, we are likely to take a short-cut through this stage and assume the same causes that prompted the Stimulus in the past. Over our lifetime, we create a database of assumptions that help us to make sense of our world more quickly when experiencing similar Stimuli.
The next, very important stage is Interpretation. We come up with a story about “why” the Stimulus happened. Sometimes this comes out of the “Wonder” stage, and sometimes it comes out of our database of assumptions.
This is the stage that gets us into trouble. For example, our Interpretation in the lead-in story was probably that the shadowy figure running toward us was going to do us harm. What if we had pulled out our pepper spray and given him a face full? Our Interpretation (or “story”) could have gotten us into a difficult and embarrassing situation.
Once we have an Interpretation (or “story”) about the Stimulus, we feel. The Stimulus itself has no power to make us feel one way or the other, but our Interpretation of it does. In the lead-in story, we might have felt afraid when we saw the shadowy figure running toward us. That wasn’t because he was running; we see people running all the time. It was because we Interpreted that as a threat.
The final stage is Action. Based on our Interpretation and our Feelings about it, we take Action. We pepper spray the approaching figure, or we call out for help, or we just try to get away. If our Interpretation was correct, then our Action is more likely to be correct. However, even with the correct Interpretation, correct Action is not a guarantee. Many times, we take Action that is ineffective or even harmful to the situation or to relationships.
This entire process is not only S.W.I.F.T.; it’s swift! We can Interpret a situation and Take Action in seconds or less depending on how familiar we are with what is going on. This ability is crucial in a crisis situation. If we smell smoke (Stimulus), how quickly we move from Wonder to Interpretation to Feelings to Taking Action can mean the difference between life and death.
Sometimes, however, we are too quick to jump to conclusions (Interpretation). Maybe you’ve had this experience. Someone wants your attention. It could be your child or a co-worker. Because this person typically needs something from you, and because you are busy and under pressure, you Interpret that this is just another attempt to drain the life out of you. Feeling irritated, you snap at the person (Action), but then you are embarrassed when you realize that the person just wanted to give you a gift or express a kind thought.
Interpretation is everything. Many bad choices are made as the result of bad Interpretation. The next time you are Feeling irritable or angry or upset about something, retrace where that Feeling came from. What Stimulus led to what Wonder (unless you skipped this step) that led to what Interpretation. Then, ask yourself, “Was my Interpretation correct?” “Is it fair and logical?” “Could this have happened for any other reason?”
As the old saying goes: “It’s not what happens to you in life; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too swift.