Even at the highest levels of government and business, we all struggle to communicate our intentions. Our words may be misinterpreted, misquoted and/or taken out of context. Communicating and managing perceptions remain significant challenges. We cannot succeed without consistently and accurately telegraphing our thoughts and intentions. If you want to shape others’ perceptions, you must take control of the messages you send.
The Perception Process
Listeners experience a flurry of brain activity as they try to understand what you’re saying. They’re sizing you up, forming opinions of you and your message, comparing you to others, and remembering similar situations and opinions.
Most of what happens in perceivers’ minds is automatic and unconscious. This is Phase 1 of the perception process, and it is riddled with bias.
In Phase 2, perceivers use the part of the brain concerned with logic and reason. This is a much more effortful thinking process, one that requires energy. Consequently, they avoid it to conserve brain resources.
More often than not, Phase 2 is never activated. People form opinions of you and your message with Phase 1 assumptions – and then they move on.
Two Flawed Assumptions
“Statistically speaking, there are only weak correlations between how others see us and how we believe we are seen,” notes social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson in No One Understands You and What to Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).
Without even realizing it, we’re likely operating under two flawed assumptions:
Neither of these beliefs is true. You’re much harder to read than you imagine.
For example, your emotions are much less obvious than you realize. Strong emotions are easy to read: fear, rage, surprise, disgust. But the more subtle emotions we experience daily – frustration, annoyance, disappointment, impatience and respect – may not actually register on our faces. When they do, they’re usually indistinguishable from other emotions.
How “Judgeable” Are You?
Some of us are more knowable than others. People who are easier to understand deliberately express themselves in ways that encourage more accurate perceptions. Psychologists refer to this as “judgeability.”
If you don’t tell people what they need to know, their brains will fill in the blanks, creating a personality profile that may or may not be accurate.
Perceivers rely on rules of thumb so their brains don’t have to work too hard:
Three Perceptual Filters
You never start from scratch when meeting new people. Their brains are rapidly filling in details about you, even if you’ve never met them before.
We view others through three lenses or filters:
The Trust Filter
The first thing people do when listening to you is determine whether to trust you. This decision is made almost entirely unconsciously.
We can build trust in many ways:
The Power Filter
Power changes the way we see other people, especially when there’s a power differential.
When we speak, they must be mindful of how our power influences their message. Failing to address the issue leaves room for perceivers to fill in the blanks.
The Ego Filter
The ego lens has one goal: to protect and enhance the perceiver’s self-esteem. Perceivers will always protect their self-esteem, including their decision to receive or reject our message.
Identify your ingrained assumptions, biases and filters so you can manage them more effectively. Halvorson suggests the following strategies:
If there is a huge gap between your intended message and how others hear it, you will need to closely examine your communication style and substance. Consider working with a trusted mentor or professional coach to analyze how you come across to others.
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