Most of the conflict I have experienced in my life, both firsthand and secondhand, has not been the result of factual disagreement, but of differing perceptions.
Every day we interact with others, “notice” their behavior, and then proceed to draw conclusions about what it is, what it means, etc. Our interpretations, and thus our final perceptions, lead us to act on what we believe to be true when in fact, we have no idea what the truth is.
For example, before leaving for work in the morning, you tell your teenager to take out the trash before walking to the bus stop. The teenager agrees. When you get home after a long day at work, you walk into the kitchen to the smell of last night’s fish dinner wafting from the still-full trash can. Aforementioned teenager is lying on the couch, binge watching Netflix.
What do you do?
A. Take out the trash yourself, saying nothing (not likely)
B. Ask the teenager politely why he or she didn’t take out the trash? (not likely)
C. Go Ballistic! (yes, that’s it)
For most of us who are parents, the answer would be C. There’s no reason to verify our perceptions, right? We know exactly what happened. That irresponsible, lazy kid forgot to take out the trash because Netflix is much more important.
So, what’s the problem with that?
Although we might be correct some of the time when we run with our perceptions, there are many times when our perceptions are flat-out wrong.
The above scenario is a true one. A workshop participant shared it with me after she learned the Perception Checking technique at a previous workshop of mine. She told me that the “old her” would have selected “Option C,” but having been to my course, she thought she’d give Perception Checking a try.
Upon entering her kitchen, she paused, took a deep breath (despite the fish odor), and calmly said:
“Derek, the trash is still inside when you said you’d take it out this morning. Did you forget, or did something prevent you from taking out the garbage? What happened?
To which Derek replied (and the mom later confirmed to be true):
“I was going to, but Mrs. Davis called because she had a flat tire. I went next door and changed it for her so she could go to work. By the time I finished, the bus was coming so I ran to the bus stop.”
A simple perception check turned what would have been a fight, into an opportunity for a mom to praise her son for doing the right thing.
Perception checking is equally applicable to work situations. Before you jump to conclusions about why Karen didn’t get you the report on time, or presume to know what “that look” means on the face of that employee you know has a bad attitude … check it out with a Perception Check.
Steps to an Effective Perception Checking Statement
- Describe the person’s actions or behavior in a factual, nonjudgmental manner.
- Offer two possible interpretations of the behavior—one can even be “negative” as long as the second gives the other person “benefit-of-the-doubt.”
- Ask the person to share their “truth”—before you respond or take further action.
Perception checking is a great tool for ensuring you don’t start a conflict unnecessarily and for clearing the air when there is a problem. Give it a try this week. Your coworkers and loved ones will appreciate you taking the time to “check it out before you challenge.”
Amy Castro is a Performance Communication expert, speaker, author, and blogger. Her Performance Communication Blog provides weekly tips, tools, and techniques for getting along and getting things done.