26 June, 2009

Our Interactions are Shaped by our Perceptions

Perception is one of the tools of communication we have which allows us broader access and insight to the true feelings of those around us. 

We sometimes overlook the power of perception in our daily lives but it absolutely shapes the color of our interactions with others, the quality of our lives, and our willingness to take action on behalf of another.

We all have powers of perception when it comes to “reading” others.  We perceive people to be upset, to be dangerous, to be lighthearted and fun to be around, and to be serious and void of humor.  These perceptions come from others physiological (body) language (standing with open or crossed arms, smiling or frowning, eyes are bright or eyes are glazed, etc.) as well as their tones of voices and inflections of speech more so than in the actual words that they say.

While perception is a valuable tool for us to use in our communications with others, there is a particular trap we often fall into when it comes to perception.  Let’s say that you’re meeting someone for the first time.  It’s been said that first impressions are the most important.  Why do you think that might be?

When we meet someone for the first time, we file away general information about that person in our memory.  Most of us will at least remember the person’s face.  Some will remember the person’s face and their name.  But all of us will remember what we perceived about that person.  We will remember if we liked them.  We will remember what kinds of signals they were sending with their physiological language and other non-verbals - - and by these we will remember if they were enjoyable to be around and whether or not we felt that they liked us.  We will remember if we were offended by anything they said.  And so on, and so on…..

The trap that this creates for us is that we begin to “know” that person by what we remembered from our first encounter.  That’s not to say that those impressions cannot be changed over time.  However, the next time we are in the company of that person, we choose the words we speak, the information we share, and convey back our overall feelings about that individual based upon our past perceptions of the person.

This trap, however, isn’t reserved for people we’ve just met.  It also interferes with people we’ve known for a long time. 

People can and do change.  And, people transform.  My perception about my supervisor at work might be that he isn’t sympathetic to others when they are sick.  He’s never sick and he doesn’t have empathy for others when they are.  However, let’s say that he eats some tainted shell-fish one Friday night and he becomes very sick.  By Monday, he’s recovered enough to return to work and he can hide the fact that he’s been ill.  Neither I, nor any of my fellow employees, know that our boss was sick over the weekend.  Now, unbeknownst to any of us, through his own experience, my boss has developed an empathy for others when they are sick.  But since I don’t know that, I still relate to him as if he were a tyrant when it relates to illness. 

The following Wednesday, I wake up really sick with a stomach flu.  I go to pick up the phone and call my boss but all I can think about is how he has related to me in the past when I was sick and how difficult this is going to be for me to call out of work.  I try to think of other excuses.  I try to determine if I can push through this and make it.  This whole time, I am operating in the trap known as “preconceived notions” as given by the perceptions I have about my boss in the area of sickness.  I’ve gotten myself so worked up that I’ve gone over what our verbal exchange might be when I call in and talk to him.

Finally, feeling that I’m armed as well as can be, I call my boss to inform him that I will be out of work that day due to illness.  He thanks me for calling and tells me that he hopes I get to feeling better soon.  “What?!!!?!,” I think as I hang up the phone.  That wasn’t my boss.  I proceed to ponder over it for awhile and then chalk-it-up as a one time thing.  I continue to relate to my boss as an uncaring, unsympathetic human being.

That is an example of the trap of perception at work.  If we only relate to others as we “know” them to be, we never leave room for them to change, grow, or transform.  They can only “be” who we perceived them to be.  And, in our worlds, once they do change, we don’t see it because we’re never looking for it.  We’re only looking for the evidence of what we “know” to be true about them.  And, we will always find the evidence we are looking for to support our assumptions / perceptions about others. 

In order to compensate for this “trap of perception”, we must give up, anew, our previous perceptions about a person each time that we interact with him or her.  Only then, do we allow another the space s/he needs to be fully self-expressed as who s/he is, in the present.

1 comment:

  1. You have hit on so many truths, and gave me lots to ponder. You have a gift for words and insight, and I look forward to reading your blog regularly my new friend!


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