How Are You Calibrated?

In a recent conflict consultation, triggered by a call from the Executive Director of a small organization, my interviews revealed that one of the senior staff members—let’s call her Carla— was seen by her colleagues as a “loose cannon” who was “abusing” and “berating” and “dismissive” and “belittling.” Everyone, including the ED, was afraid of her, not wanting to have to experience one of her “outbursts of rage.” There had been a steady turnover of people reporting to her or working with her—four in the last year. To use language from Family Systems Theory, she had become “The Identified Patient” in the situation. “If she were gone, everything would be fine around here.” 

Interestingly, in my interview with Carla, when I shared the general feedback I had received about her, something happened that occurs often in similar engagements in my history: she was astounded. 

“What are they talking about?!” she blurted. “I’m not abusing them, or belittling them; I’m trying to motivate them, to provoke some fresh thinking from them, to stimulate some dialogue.” 

“Well,” I responded, “from what I get, they’re all terrified of you.” 

“Of me? Why? What do I do that’s so scary?” 

“In then few minutes you and I have been talking, I think I may see what they are reacting to. Are you interested in my hunch about this?” 

“Absolutely!” she said, almost in desperation.

The Calibration Model

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“I call this The Calibration Model, and it goes back to my work as a family therapist some years ago. Both these people have a 10 point scale that represents the intensity with which they experience their own inner emotions—and the intensity of their outer expression. Chris and Carla both have a “1” (a low level of intensity), a “5” (a basically mid-range level of intensity), and a “10” (a high level of intensity) on their scale. If you asked either of these people to tell you where they were on that scale of intensity in a given moment, they could probably tell you, maybe after a second or two. “Oh, right now, I’d say I about at a 7. ” Or, “Oh, yeah! I’m really hot about this one; I’d say I’m around a 10.”

But notice what happens when these two people interact.

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When Carla expresses what is for her an expression of mild intensity for her—like a 5—it comes across (literally in this case) and lands in Chris’ world as a 10. Chris feels ‘attacked’ by the intensity of Carla’s expression, yet Carla would be stunned to find out how her simple expression had impacted Chris. In fact, she might not even believe it. 

The principle here is that we assess and experience ourselves based on our INTENT, yet assess others by their IMPACT on us. 

I wish you could have seen Carla’s face when I finished this explanation of the diagram on the napkin. . . 

“Now I understand what’s been happening,” she said quietly. “Thank you, John.” She seemed almost relieved at the discovery.


You can see right away how useful this could be in a relationship where the two people are calibrated differently. Over time, even a small relative difference in calibration between two close friends or colleagues will emerge as an issue sooner or later. It becomes a simple matter to say, “I’m a 10 on this one.” Or, “Don’t get crazy on me; this is just a 5.” Play with it. So far, the examples have been about a person with an expanded calibration using the model to help someone with a more compressed calibration know where they are coming from. But it can be just as useful going in the other direction. A person with a more compressed scale may not be getting their intensity across to their expanded scale colleague or partner. Someone with an expanded scale may want to grab the other person and say, “When are you going to feel something?! Anything! You are so controlled all the time. Emotionally, you’re like a flat EKG. . .”

At that moment, it could be useful for the compressed calibration person to say where they are on their scale: “Well, it probably doesn’t even register on your scale, but I’m actually at a 10 right now!” This may stun the expanded scale person, but, over time, they’ll become better able to read the signs. What 10 looks like on one person is nothing like what it looks like on another. Yet, both have a complete scale of emotional intensity—and both are valid.

Hope this helps out there. . . 

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