“Only a small portion of reality, for a human being, is what is going on; the greater part is what he imagines in connection with the sights and sounds of the moment.” – Suzanne Langer
Want to be a more effective communicator? Look at how you perceive your interactions.
Effective communication requires self-reflection and commitment to change.
Think about the relationship between perception, language, and behavior and how those influence each other and shape your reality. You might gain new insight into how people perceive and navigate their world.
Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters (8th ed.), author Julia Wood details the process of perception and defines it as an “active process of creating meaning by selecting, organizing, and interpreting people, objects, events, situations, and activities” (Wood, 2016).
The following scenario highlights this idea:
Imagine two people, Person A and Person B. Person A tends to be very negative and looks at the world as a place rife with mistrust. This person believes that everyone is “out for themselves.” This dim view becomes reinforced because now that Person A is predisposed to that belief, he notices numerous examples that support his worldview. He notices every car that cuts him off in traffic, each person that does not hold the door open and each time (real or perceived) he feels slighted by his colleagues. If you follow this example through, you might guess that Person A probably has a more difficult time negotiating their daily life.
In contrast, Person B tends to be very positive with a healthy outlook on life. She deeply believes that people are good and are always ready to lend a helping hand. During her day she notices, and appreciates, the person who picked up her books when she dropped them, the man who let her go before him in the grocery line, and the woman who let her into a wall of traffic. If you follow this example through, you might guess that Person B is much more positive and you may find that life seems to be a bit easier for this person.
In extending the car example, the connection between perception, language and behavior becomes clear:
- Setting: Busy morning traffic
- Perception: Everyone is out for themselves and they do not care about the needs or safety of others.
- Situation: Someone cuts him off in traffic narrowly avoiding an accident
- Language: “See, everyone is so ignorant and in a rush.” “That guy is a real jerk.”
- Behavior: Because Person A is now angry, late, and frustrated, his driving becomes more aggressive and the mood for the day has been set.
- Setting: Busy morning traffic
- Perception: Everyone is trying to do their best and people are genuinely good.
- Situation: Someone cuts her off in traffic narrowly avoiding an accident
- Language: “I wish that person was a more careful driver.” “I hope he slows down before he causes an accident.” “I hope he is not rushing because something terrible has happened.”
- Behavior: Because of Person A’s perception, she feels some empathy for the reckless driver and her behavior is not unduly affected. She simply keeps driving and thinks about the day ahead.
This example highlights the direct connection between what you think, what you say, and how you behave. In each case, it is evident that what each person perceived directly influenced both their language and behavior.
Factors Affecting Perception
How one perceives the world is a combination of factors, such as self-esteem, self-concept, and learned values. Wood (2016) notes that “our perceptions are shaped by who we are and what experiences we have had. Thus, interpersonal perceptions reflect both what is inside of us and what is outside of us.” She suggests these factors also influence perception:
- Social Roles
- Cognitive Abilities
Guidelines for Improving Perception
Effective communicators understand the connection between perception, language, and behavior. Wood offers the following guidelines for improving perception:
- Recognize that all perceptions are partial and subjective
- Avoid mind reading
- Check perceptions with others
- Distinguish between facts and inferences
- Guard against the self-serving bias
- Guard against the fundamental attribution error
- Monitor labels
For more information on how to improve your communication skills through perception, check out Wood’s book, Interpersonal communication: Everyday encounters.
Reference: Wood, J. (2016). Interpersonal communication: Everyday encounters (3rd ed. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth.)