What planet are you from? Why are our perceptions different?
Despite often getting messages to the contrary, one of the most enduring of myths is that we all live in the same world. Of course, I’m not talking about the physical world — there is only one of those. I am talking about the shared view of the world we all occupy. You may have had a glimpse of this when you have an argument with your partner about well…. anything. It can feel like you live in different universes. Despite being in the same place at the same time you just have polar opposite experiences of the same event. Even though the extent to which this characteristic adds lots of noise and confusion to our lives, it is also one of the wonders that make us exquisitely human.
We are each one of a kind, not only that we look different and talk differently and live in different ways, but that our mental space in the world, our perception of the world, is ours and ours alone. To compound the situation, we are also very closely married to our worldview, to the extent that someone else’s view can seem at best quaint, at worst inexplicable and at times completely offensive to us. If you could climb into someone’s head, and experience the world the way they do, you would see and feel amazing differences. You may be shocked, or you may find yourself having empathy with alternative views because you would be seeing them in a new way, based on the myriad different experiences that the other person had that shaped their world.
There are profound and lengthy philosophical exegeses on the nature of our world, our individual differences, the nature of consciousness, self-awareness, the physiological and psychological vectors that all contribute to who we are. I will not go into them here as I just trying to illustrate a simple point about managing relationships, particularly at work. The point is we are all different. Very Different. Yet we assume that when we see something, hear something, feel something, that everyone in the room has the same experience of us. They don’t. We assume that when we say something, and are careful to pick our words so that there can be no ambiguity, that the person will hear it the way we intend it. They don’t. They only hear their version of it, filtered and mashed up through their complex hybrid of language, experiences and feelings that we cannot even start to comprehend.
Let’s take a silly example — using small words.
I say to you — “I am feeling a little off today”.
“Hmmm”, you respond empathically, “I’m sure you’ll feel better soon”.
“What a douche”, you think, “does he have no idea?”
So what’s the problem? Well, the word “off” means different things to me and you, so does the word “little”. I use the word “off” when I am troubled, maybe had a very rough night, when I have been contemplating self-doubt and worried about a whole bunch of things on my mind. You use the word when you are feeling a bit apathetic, lazy and just need to reignite your mojo. I take things very seriously. I am anxious by nature, a bit obsessive, like to control my life three steps ahead, anticipating any obstacles. You are cavalier. You cross bridges when you come to them. You are composed, unfussed and walk through life with a spring in your step. The small sentence that links our worlds briefly “I am feeling a little off today” is a chasm between us. But we don’t really know. I assumed there would be strong alignment between what I said and what you heard. But somewhere in the translation machine that is our lives, everything gets mangled.
So are we all doomed to be oblivious zombies, locked into the constraints of our imagination, unable to bridge the void that exists between us and others? Not at all. Despite our aloneness in the singular world that is ours, we manage to live our lives with others, interacting daily with countless people in a relatively effortless way. We may often think that people don’t “get us”, or that others are odd, we form opinions the whole time regarding the behaviours of others. People may seem somewhat eccentric, we wonder about their motivations, biases, their attributions, the comments they make, but we learn to be tolerant of differences. Well for the most part. Because every now and again, things do flare up. Partnerships dissolve, marriages fall apart, friends go their separate ways. Our separate worlds, only vaguely insulated from each other, collide, some breaking point is reached and our perceptions lose their tolerance for each other. So how is this important, especially at work?
The perceptual difference at work
Work, it’s where we encounter, on a regular basis, the people who can be the most different from us. We make a big effort to choose our friends, our partners, the people close to us. But work relationships are fairly arbitrary. We are thrown together for some common purpose to make a company function, and the worldviews we come in with, encounter the worldviews of groups of other people who land up in the same place to do a job. Our perceptions of those people, our perceptions of the work environment, the jobs we do and the values of the organisation accompany us. All the time. So here perhaps are a few pointers that might be useful in dealing with perceptual differences.
- Be aware. It is important to acknowledge that there are as many interpretations of an event as there are people in the room.
- Your perception is not necessarily more valid than anyone else’s, although it may seem like that to you.
- You’ll go crazy if you endeavour to interrogate every difference of perception. Most of the time it is prudent to just let it go — it doesn’t matter if you see things differently.
- If it does matter (and you’ll know when it does), then it is worth acting. When you experience an important gulf between you and someone else over a meeting, a conversation, a request, take the time to gently probe around the way they saw it and felt it.
- Don’t be defensive or try to explain that your view is the right one. Just be curious, listen and absorb their experience. Importantly, acknowledge their view.
- Be tolerant and understanding when people say to you “I never meant it that way”. It’s your filters that most likely coloured your interpretation. Our confirmatory biases are so strong that we can read people’s minds, their body language and gestures in ways that can be totally irrelevant. We see what we think we want to see.
- When it is important and you feel misunderstood, if something has spiralled out of control, make time with the other party to explore the issue.
Overall our perceptual differences are a gift to humanity. The opportunity of subjective experience has something to do with our success as a species. Viva la différence. Our inventiveness and brilliance derives from our diversity and has allowed humankind to develop on the planet in amazing ways. If we all thought the same, believed the same, behaved the same we would be far more limited as a species. We would do well then to embrace our uniqueness, to cherish our individuality but at the same time to reach out when appropriate and cultivate a deep interest in the otherness of the people around us.
Author: Dr Hilton Rudnick