Separating Observations from Conclusions – “Whoa” “Hmm” “Ahh” and “Duh?”

In this post I explain why “Whoa,” “Hmm,” “Ahh” and “Duh” are four of the most sacred words in the English language. 

In every moment as we go about our day, performing tasks and interacting with others,  our mind is drawing conclusions from our observations. For example, when we drive, we notice the position and speed of other cars and from these observations we reach conclusions about what the other drivers will do. We respond to these conclusions and that keeps us safe.

This process of reaching a conclusion from observations is called “inference.” The conclusions we reach are based on our observations, but there is some educated guesswork involved. We don’t know if a car coming to a corner will turn or go straight, but based on how fast it is moving, and our memory of other cars approaching a corner, we use the process of inference to reach a conclusion about whether it will turn or not. And we are almost always correct (even if the car’s turn signal is not blinking).

Just as we use inference to reach conclusions when we drive, we also use inference to reach conclusions when we interact with others. But, while inference almost always leads to the correct conclusions about where the other cars will go, this same process of inference often fails miserably when we are relating to others. We reach conclusions which are inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. Unfortunately we tend to believe our conclusions.  This can lead us to respond inappropriately, and that is a problem in relationships.

Every day when working with people I often hear how their difficulty separating their conclusions from their observations causes problems with family members, friends, or co-workers. The person has reached conclusions based on observations such as the tone and volume of voice, body language, choice of words, context, etc. However, other conclusions would also have fit the observations. For example, their spouse may have been irritated … or tired. Their co-worker may have been dismissive … or preoccupied. By assuming their conclusion is correct and letting that conclusion determine their response they create more problems in the relationship.

We need to understand that even though our conclusions can be justified by logic that DOES NOT mean they are correct. Other conclusions, sometimes very different conclusions, can also be logically justified. If we insist that our inaccurate conclusion is correct solely because we can justify it, then we are merely using logic to go wrong with confidence. We need to question our conclusions based on whether they lead to helpful responses, not whether they can be justified.

This brings us to the first sacred word, “Whoa!!’ We use this word when we notice that we have jumped to a conclusion and are responding to that conclusion but our response is not helpful. “Whoa!!” reminds us to stop what we are doing and reconsider. We can combine that mental admonition with a deep breath or two.

Once we have stopped we then apply the second and third sacred words, “Hmmm?” and “Ahhh.” We ask ourselves “Hmmm, what is really going on here?” Then “Ahhh. Ok, what else?”

“Hmmm?” and “Ahhh” over and over. We are looking for observations we may have missed, or deemed irrelevant. Remember we are not looking only for observations that justify our original conclusion. We use “Hmmm?” and “Ahhh” to help us to look for observations that do not support our original conclusion. Observations that might open our mind to other possibilities.

Letting go of our conclusions makes us anxious. We like certainty, sometimes holding to a conclusion that we can feel certain of even when it causes us to act destructively. To help us let go of our conclusions we can apply the most sacred word of the four … “Duh?”

“Duh?” or “I don’t know” is an admission of the limits of our knowledge. It is not an admission of ignorance. We know our observations. We admit that our conclusions based on those observations are not necessarily correct. When we are comfortable with uncertainty, then even as we act we can continue to assess the situation. We do not lock ourselves into a conclusion, but remain able to change that conclusion if more observations do not support it.

How does meditation relate to this? One of the purposes of meditation is to help us explore how our mind functions. We focus our attention, not on the “Now” but the processes of observation and inference that create our “Now.” We can then change these processes so that we are more likely to reach helpful conclusions. The meditation method that is most helpful for this is attending. I will work on an audio guided meditation for this in the next week.

Of course, these four sacred words will not handle all relationship problems. Sometimes the problems exist because of difference in objectives or values. However, “Whoa, Hmm, Ahh, and Duh” can help us avoid reaching incorrect conclusions which are all too often making our distress worse.


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