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3.6: Guidelines for Effective Perception

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    Perception Checking

    Due to all of the influences on our perceptions, from physical and cognitive differences to membership in cultural groups, if we are going to practice effective communication it is essential for us to use strategies that decrease the inevitable biases each of us have. Perception checking involves taking extra time and effort to examine a situation from multiple perspectives, with the goal of increased understanding between two parties.

    Subjectivity vs. Objectivity

    Assumptions are subjective opinions. When something is subjective, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, that means it is “1. taking place or existing only within the mind. Or 2. particular to a specific person and thus intrinsically inaccessible to the experience or observation of others” (American Psychological Association, n.d.a). This is as opposed to objective observations, which involve facts or items “having verifiable existence in the external world, independently of any opinion or judgment” (American Psychological Association, n.d.c).

    Let’s imagine that Fernanda and Tran are assigned to be lab partners in Chemistry. It is the first day of class. Both partners identify as female, high-achieving students, and both are sophomores at the same college. Fernanda, a Mexican American student, stayed up late the night before, supporting her roommate through a very difficult time. As a result, she did not get much sleep and came into class wearing the sweatpants and T-shirt she put on for bed. Tran, who identifies as Vietnamese American, went to sleep early and got up at 6:00 a.m. to exercise, then showered, put on makeup, and dressed in a business casual outfit, because she has an interview for an internship later in the afternoon.

    Although both Fernanda and Tran have a lot in common, in terms of their gender identity and excellent work ethic to meet their goal of succeeding in school, they are likely to make some wrong first impressions of each other, based solely on physical characteristics like clothing/dress or cultural identity/ethnicity. Tran may see Fernanda dressed in wrinkled sweatpants and a T-shirt and believe that she is not a serious student. She may therefore be disappointed in having her as a Chemistry lab partner. Fernanda may see Tran’s makeup and business casual outfit as a sign that her lab partner is stuck up or thinks she is too good for anyone else.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Conversation on a Couch Photo by Surface on Unsplash

    Distinguish Facts from Non-Facts

    In order to distinguish facts (or objective data) from non-facts, we can follow these steps:

    1. Determine the facts or observable information. In this case, the facts include: Fernanda is dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt that are wrinkled. Tran is dressed in a business casual outfit and is wearing makeup. Notice that these facts are listed without any interpretation or personal feelings associated with them.
    2. Identify your emotions and mental/physical state and assess whether how you are feeling influences your interpretation of the situation. In this case, Fernanda might recognize that she is exhausted and not at her cognitive best due to lack of sleep. Similarly, Tran may be able to identify the fear of failure that tends to lurk deep in the back of her mind and how that fear is driving her disapproval of her new lab partner
    3. Use interpersonal communication to have a conversation or ask questions and confirm or refute any ideas you are not sure about. For example, Fernanda might say to Tran: “Wow! You are dressed for success today.” In this case, Tran may explain that she has an interview coming up.

    Monitor Self-Serving Bias

    When checking your own perceptions, it is important to pay attention to your internal biases. Self-serving bias is “the tendency to interpret events in a way that assigns credit for success to oneself but denies one’s responsibility for failure, which is blamed on external factors” (American Psychological Association, n.d.b). For example, let’s say Aiesha does not study for her first Biology quiz, yet she gets a perfect score. In this example, if Aiesha gives herself credit for getting 100% on that Biology quiz, even though she has not studied, she would be attributing her success to internal factors—perhaps her knowledge of biology or her innate ability in the sciences. Now let’s take this same example, but change one thing: this time, Aiesha (who still has not studied for the exam) gets a “D.” If she is influenced by self-serving bias, Aiesha will attribute her bad grade to something outside of herself. For example, she may blame the teacher for giving an unfair quiz or for not reminding the class to study the day before.

    A person walking outside, with a backpack on and holding books, listening to headphones.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Student Walking With Books by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

    Although self-serving bias is common in many cultures worldwide, some people are more likely to fall prey to this tendency than others. According to a meta-analysis of 266 different studies of self-serving bias, the likelihood that a person would apply this bias depends on age, home country, and mental health (Mezulis, et al., 2004). Children and older adults were more likely than adolescents and young adults to demonstrate a self-serving bias. People in Asian countries displayed a much lower propensity for self-serving bias than Americans. Understanding that many Asian cultures are collectivist or value the goals of the larger group over personal needs may help explain this difference. Finally, subjects with depression and anxiety had lower rates of self-serving bias than the general population. One of the symptoms of depression, according to the current Diagnostic Statistical Manual is “feelings of worthlessness” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). We know that people with low self-esteem are more likely to underrate their abilities (Davis, et al., 2006), and this in turn could affect self-serving bias.

    Avoid Mind Reading

    While trying to form an objective and fair perception of another person, we must be aware of, and work to avoid, mind reading. It is easy to jump to conclusions about what another person’s motivations are or to assume what they are thinking. We must be mindful that it is impossible to know what another person is thinking or feeling, simply by guessing from their words and facial expression. Practicing effective listening and asking questions can help us to clarify other people’s thought processes and intentions. A saying that captures this sentiment appears on inspirational websites and memes (with a variety of wording and not attributed to a specific author): “You never know what another person is going through. Be kind. Always.”

    Verbal/Nonverbal Communication Skills

    As you will learn in Chapter 4, effective communication skills are attained over time and with practice. Continuing to sharpen our verbal skills is one way to help us avoid misunderstandings.

    Checking In

    A great way to ensure we keep our perceptions in check is to engage in perception-checking strategies. Instead of assuming we know what others are thinking and feeling, we can learn to ask them. Imagine a scenario where you wrongly assume the feelings and thoughts of another, and base your entire interaction with them on this perception, only to learn that you were wrong. Aside from possibly damaging your relationship, you have also wasted time and energy on a misperception. To avoid these kinds of missteps, we can ask questions. Phrases like, “I wonder” or “I have noticed” can help us open up dialogue to check in with others. Imagine you start a challenging conversation with “I wonder if you are upset with me” or “I have noticed that you have been quiet today. Could something be bothering you?” When we ask questions, we can show others that we truly care and are interested in understanding how they feel (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Asking questions could also allow us to move towards a solution more quickly, convey more compassion, and be better listeners. Perception checking can take on many forms. One of the most basic starting points is a three-step process, outlined in the chart below.

    Three Steps for Engaging in Perception Checking
    Step Description Example

    Describe the behavior or situation without evaluating or judging it.

    Perception checks include “I” language and a clearly stated observation or fact: “I heard you mention ____."

    "I noticed you have been unusually quiet this evening."

    Think of some possible interpretations of the behavior, being aware of attributions and other influences on the perception process.

    This is followed by 2 possible interpretations: "I am wondering if ___ or ___ is the case for you?"

    "Earlier in the week, you weren’t feeling well. I wonder if it is that. If not, did I say something to upset you?"

    Verify what happened and ask for clarification from the other person’s perspective.

    Finally, the perception check is completed with a clarification request: "Can you clarify?"

    "I am sorry that comment was hurtful. I see how that was crossing the line and I will try not to say it again. Can you please clarify how I can do better?"

    Perception checking can be new and uncomfortable at first, and here are some reasons why. First, perception checking might seem time consuming. After all, it takes a lot more work up-front to inquire, rather than just jump in with assumptions. However, jumping to conclusions could lead to more conflict or unnecessary back-and-forth, so perhaps this process can actually help you save time, and possibly avoid hurt feelings. You might also notice that even though we are the ones initiating the conversations in perception checking, we are serving as listeners, rather than speakers. For some people, listening can be a challenge. As you get used to this process, try to work on actively listening and giving the floor to the other as they work through their feelings. Finally, perception checking really forces us to be accountable. We are encouraged to use “I” language, even when describing another’s actions, because this is our perception of those actions. Lastly, you may have noticed that in the perception-checking process, we are taking ownership of our observations. This can be uncomfortable. We may need to own up to hurting others and accept fault in times of conflict. For those of us who are still practicing this, be patient and show yourself some grace. This serves a perfect segue into our next section, building compassion through perception.

    Building Compassion Through Perception

    Two women sitting opposite each other at a small table conversing
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Two People Talking at Across a Table by Christina @ on Unsplash

    In literature posted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Education from Stanford Medicine (2021), compassion is defined as:

    1. An awareness of suffering in others
    2. A feeling of being emotionally moved by suffering
    3. A motivation to see the relief of that suffering
    4. An action and willingness to help relieve that suffering when possible

    Research in compassion cultivation shows that “when perspective-taking is particularly geared toward imagining the other person’s emotional state, rather than just her point of view, empathic responses and helping behavior are even more pronounced” (Batson et al. 2003, as cited in Seppala, et al., 2013, p. 416-417). There have been many publications regarding how compassion can benefit us in areas of physical and mental health, survival, happiness, social competence, and more (UCSD Center for Mindfulness, 2021). As you might conclude, understanding perception is of key importance in interpersonal communication. It is a foundation upon which we can build stronger and more meaningful relationships.

    This page titled 3.6: Guidelines for Effective Perception is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Hilary Altman & Alex Mata (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .