Through Your Looking Glass

Effective communication depends on shared perceptions.

The editor suggested by phone, “Let’s meet for lunch. We’ll discuss your writing project then.”

“How will I know you?” I asked.

“Oh,” she answered, “that’s easy. I’ll be the tall, skinny blonde.”

I formed a mental picture . . . but one destined to be short-lived. For on that Tuesday, when she walked up to greet me, I was glad she spoke first. I wouldn’t have identified her from the description. In fact, I’d glanced at her once, then looked elsewhere.

She seemed average height, with light brown hair, and not all that skinny (which, of course, I couldn’t mention).

Everybody has similar experiences. Written and spoken descriptions seem even less reliable than weather forecasts and lottery tickets.

We hear, “Great movie–you have to see it!” We rent the video, then cut it off after ten minutes, muttering, “This movie got an Oscar?”

You dislike the “super restaurant” a friend raved about. To you, prices were too high, servers were slow and rude, and you’d rate the food bland, at best.

As a result, we have popularized statements like “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

Communication specialists attribute these diverse interpretations to perception.. They explain that each of us has a unique window to the world.. Consequently, our viewpoints are truly customized, like a contact lens prescription which works for us, but not for the person standing next to us.

Life experiences shape perception. A Boston native will laugh at the Atlanta weatherman’s “frigid” forecast, when temperatures dip into the 40s. Bostonians wash their cars on those days.

A person’s needs alter perception. You’ve heard the advice, “Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.” You’ll buy foods you’d bypass when shopping just after a meal. Also, think of driving past a bank sign and seeing the time and temperature flashing alternately. Running late for an appointment, you’re likely to focus on the time. Heading for the beach, you’ll center on the temperature. In either case, the irrelevant numbers might not “register” with you. If asked, you couldn’t repeat them.

Gender influences perception. Often we feel there’s no exaggeration in John Gray’s title, Men Are from Mar, Women Are from Venus.. As Gray states, many male/female conflicts don’t revolve around issues of right or wrong, just recognition of opposite vantage points.

Certainly economic status alters perception. What, for instance, is your definition of an expensive house? Think back to when your salary was one third or one half of your current income. Your dollar figure for an expensive home was radically different then, wasn’t it? Throw in how housing prices have escalated in the last twenty years, and you’ll note another reason definitions change.

Physical characteristics play important roles. In the sixth grade, I learned that I’m largely color blind. Maybe the editor I met for lunch really was more of a blonde than I thought. Also, were I shorter in stature, she could have fit the “tall” depiction.

You could add to the list of factors which affect perception–age, various roles we play, tradition, family values, national and ethnic origin, education, religious beliefs, and more.

There’s an important lesson here–both for communication and human relations. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin spoke to this point. Late in life, he adopted a new way of dealing with people. Abandoning the dogmatic style of his youth, he started using these phrases: “the way I look at this,” “it seems to me,” and “I could be mistaken, but . . . .”

Franklin noticed radical improvement in communication efforts and how he related to others.

Examine your looking glass–the porthole through which you see the world and its inhabitants. Realize how and why your individual window is unlikely to match another person’s. Expect the differences in what each of you sees, and then says. Allow for discrepancies–and learn from them.

An old saying confirms Franklin’s advice about perception: “Don’t call the world dirty because you forgot to clean your glasses.”

Copyright, Dr. William Lampton, 1999. Excerpted from his book, The Complete Communicator : Change Your Communication, Change Your Life! (Hillsboro Press, 800-321-5692)

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