This morning as I was preparing to write my next blog for InVision Leadership I had an interesting encounter with my 10-year-old daughter. My kids had a special treat this morning for breakfast—doughnuts. It’s not a regular occurrence they get doughnuts, and generally, they prefer only to have them on occasion. I must admit that I enjoy the occasional doughnut trip. My daughter had a glazed chocolate iced with sprinkles on top doughnut sitting on her plate, and I thought as a parent I could “taste test” the doughnut. I took the smallest (really) of bites off the side of the doughnut. As I was enjoying the little bit of sugar melting in my mouth, my daughter in a fun-loving yet aggravated tone says, “You ate my doughnut!”
Making such a statement to a coach is intriguing. Immediately my question was, “What do you mean that I ate your doughnut?” My perception was that I took a small bite of her doughnut. Her perception was that I “ate her doughnut.” Was either of us wrong? Absolutely not.
This is a simple example of what happens every day in conversations all over the world—no matter your culture or background—perception affects our view of reality. And the reality about perception is that how you view the world is real to you. So many things affect our perception of the world around us: our experiences, education, upbringing, family history, and culture, among others. My perception was that I ate just a small bite of the doughnut—I didn’t eat the whole doughnut. My daughter saw that I ate her doughnut. Both of us had unique perceptions about the same issue, and both of us reacted and were “showing up” in a manner consistent with our perception.
Life throws us more complex problems than “who ate my doughnut.” We are faced daily with business decisions, family decisions, and circumstances that affect our children, our health, our finances, and our careers. Conversations are had. Situations happen. And our perceptions show up in all of them. Depending on the level of intensity and severity of a decision, a miscommunicated perception can cause havoc. People are terminated from employment; greater financial liabilities happen; marriages suffer because of perceptions that are not understood or never communicated.
The question we need to continually ask ourselves is a question of humility, self-sacrifice, and an act of service and compassion to others: How do others see this situation? This is not intended to be a question that fuels insecurities and drives second-guessing, rather, generates awareness that others involved will likely view and perceive things through a different lens.
How do you know what lens someone is viewing things through? The only way to determine someone else’s perspective is to ask the question I asked my daughter when she stated, “You ate my doughnut.”
What do you mean? Four words that will change the trajectory of any communication. Likely, you may even need to ask the question multiple times to understand.
The meaning assigned by someone originates in the person’s perception, which ultimately comes from that person's core identity which bedrocks in that person’s values and beliefs. The doughnut example may seem silly to examine the core identity of my 10-year-old daughter; however, for her, she values independence and self-expression. These affected how she behaved and what she perceived. My intrusion on her morning breakfast affected her independence. My value for shared experiences and family (not to mention a love for doughnuts) affected my behavior and my perception.
Here are a couple of tips when working with others to recognize and understand what might be affecting the person’s perception which ultimately affects behavior and communication:
1. Be willing to see that others view things differently from you. Everyone is viewing life through a different lens made up of different backgrounds, education, experiences, values, and beliefs. Ask yourself: “How else could I view this?”
2. Let go of the assumptions. Our assumptions about what people are saying often get in the way of what they communicate or express. Recognize your assumption. Ask yourself: “What am I assuming?”
3. Ask others: “What do you mean?” Take time to find out the meaning of what they are saying. Be willing to let go of your assumptions about what is being communicated and ask for clarification.
4. When you think you understand, keep asking for clarification to ensure you understand. Sometimes simply saying something like, “Can you tell me more about that?” will help expand the conversation.
5. Provide necessary feedback to ensure you are hearing and understanding the other person’s perspective. Start with: “What I hear you saying is…” or “I heard you say…” and share your understanding of the perception and communication.
Remember that communication is an ever-growing journey of self-discovery and willingness to grow with others around you. If at first, you don’t succeed—keep trying. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.