All of us struggle to understand other people's perceptions. Some of us struggle more than others, and we struggle to understand some people more than others. Still, we all struggle to some degree with this issue, and this struggle lies at the heart of many of our conflict resolution problems.
To illustrate the point, consider this experience I had a few weeks ago.
I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico with my friend and colleague, Carl Smith. We were setting up a room the night before a training session with the help of local staff members. The gentleman helping us to arrange tables and chairs spoke fluent Spanish and broken English. Carl and I speak broken Spanish and fluent English.
Our helper had, to the best of his understanding, arranged the tables as we wanted them. They were close, but not really what we wanted. As he worked to arrange the last table, Carl suggested that we move one table to where we wanted it. I was concerned that we would not be able to clearly communicate our intentions to our Spanish-speaking friend, and that he might perceive that we did not respect or appreciate the effort that he had put into arranging the room. I told Carl that I thought we should wait until our helper left the room for the evening and then adjust the tables.
Carl said something like: “That's really nice of you.”
I didn't say anything in response. I did think: “Nice? I'm not being nice. I'm being respectful.”
You see, Carl is a very nice, helpful, friendly person by nature. While I consider myself to be considerate and respectful, I would not use words like nice and friendly to describe me. Carl is very people and relationship oriented. I am very task and process oriented. (Check this post and this page for more insights on this particular topic.)
Since I am task-oriented, I did not want to “undo” our helper's work. I was driven more by showing “respect” than by being “nice.” Carl viewed my behavior as “nice” because he is more motivated to be nice to people than he is to show respect. Respect is a task perspective. Nice is a people perspective. They can lead to the same behavior, they are just different in motivation. (I know that the difference is subtle, and that we could get into a discussion on the semantics of these words. Some might say that being respectful is being nice. I'll accept that. Please go with me on the illustration.)
Only in discussing this difference later, did we realize that we completely misunderstood each other in that moment. There was no conflict, no cross words, and no frustration. We just kept working. I wondered what he meant by being nice. He wondered why I gave him a confused look. In that moment, we experienced perception error. He assigned his motivations (perceptions) to my behavior. I was confused by his comment because it did not match my perception of the situation.
In this case, no conflict ensued. We like each other. Neither of us saw a significant issue of concern in the situation. It was simply an experience that illustrates how easily we can misinterpret other people's motives. How we often assign our intentions to their behaviors. Or, possibly, how we might assume the worst of someone when we simply don't understand them. I wonder what might have happened if we didn't trust each other or if something really important had been at stake.
Today I read a post over at Settle It Now by Victoria Pynchon titled How Can We See Eye To Eye When Perception Is 90% Memory that references an article by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker. Atul Gawande's article recounts experiences in the medical field that indicate our perceptions may be more memory of past experiences than they are current receipt of information from the world around us. In other words, what we perceive to be happening now may be our brain's “best guess” at what is actually happening based on both mental images from the past and from what we see, hear, taste, and feel in the moment. Victoria Pynchon's post considers the implications of this theory on the outcome of negotiations.
I don't propose to hold the answers to what perception really is or is not. I do know that we often misinterpret other people's words and actions because we apply our meaning to them as Carl applied his meaning to my actions in the example above. If our perceptions are influenced more by mental images of past events than they are by what is really happening right now, maybe we should apply extra care as we assign meaning to the words and actions of people with whom we are trying to resolve a conflict. We should focus our thinking and energy on breaking through our perceptions to what the other person really means rather than on proving how “right” our perceptions are.
Photo courtesy www.sxc.hu.