23 Aug

Our Reality Is Not Others’ Reality

Our Reality Is Not Others' Reality

It’s a frequent point of contention: Whose version of reality is “right”? In truth, the answer is either no one’s or everyone’s. For each of us, the world is essentially a personal belief system defined by our perceptions, experiences and values.

We’ve noted that it can be hard for people to agree on something as seemingly straightforward as the color of a dress. We’ve also pointed out that the meaning of our words, and even the words themselves, may be transformed into something altogether different once they’ve been communicated to somebody else. In both instances, our version of the “facts” simply reflects how things appear to us.

Beyond the tangibles

But it doesn’t just include those that are tangible. For example, you might view your offer to assist me with my work as being supportive, while I might see it as demeaning, overbearing or intrusive because of my own insecurities or phobias. I might look at that unkempt stranger in the corner and think he looks like trouble; you might wonder if he is the “bad boy” you’ve been searching for all your life. You might feel that our many hours together means we are heading towards marriage, while I might believe we have a solid friendship–and nothing more.

Our views can be colored, so to speak, by many things, including physical differences between us. If I have weaker eyesight but better hearing than the average–assuming we can agree that this is true–I may attach more significance to what you say than to what I see, leading me, perhaps, to miss the quick smile that crossed your lips when you made that joke about something I am especially sensitive about. And even if everything is “normal,” how I process others’  verbal and nonverbal signals is likely to be based on the way I think others do with me.

There is also the commonly held belief–or, perhaps, misconception–that while our individual abilities or capabilities can and do vary, we are broadly similar in the way we process information. However, evidence suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. Researchers have found, for example, that psychopaths, who have a hard time distinguishing between what most people would perceive as right or wrong, have brains that are physically deformed. In essence, their unique perspectives have been hard-wired since birth.

Carpenters, nails and half-empty glasses

Of course, our experiences play a key role in our perceptions. If we are overly reliant on a habitual or familiar approach to life, we can find ourselves in the position, as psychologist Abraham Maslow quipped, of the carpenter with just one tool–that is, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, we may interpret what goes on around us, regardless of circumstances or others’ intentions, from a limited vantage point. Then there are our attitudes about life: if we believe, for whatever reason, that the glass is generally half-empty, it’s probably no surprise that we see the world as a darker place than others do.

Religion, culture, language, and other such frameworks can also influence how we see things. Research has shown, for instance, that while Westerners generally have an individualist mentality, Asians tend to be more holistic in their thinking. A 2001 study by psychologist Richard Nisbett found that when Americans and Japanese viewed animations featuring big fish against a watery backdrop with seaweed, rocks and air bubbles, the former’s focus tended to be on the fish, while the latter were inclined to view things in a broader context–as a teeming pond or lake. Other research has shown that perceptions about beauty, for example, can vary significantly from place to place.

Not fixed in stone

None of this is necessarily fixed in stone, either. Growing up and older, or experiencing life’s big ups and downs, can also affect our perspectives. If we are stressed out, it can lead us to store or recall experiences that paint things in a harsher light than if circumstances had been better. If we are especially emotional over an incident involving someone we care about, we may question our reality. Our perceptions about others can even vary depending on what stage of a natural hormonal cycle we are going through, according to researchers.

In sum, each of us has a worldview based on perceptions, experiences, values and other influences that are ours alone, and these can be affected–and altered–in the near and long term by any number of internal and external factors. Under the circumstances, it doesn’t really make sense to think that others will or can see things as we do, or that they will think and be just like us. Quite simply, our reality is not others’ reality, and it’s a good idea not to expect otherwise.

11 Aug

Who’s Doing All the Listening?

Who's Doing All the Listening?

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

When it comes to communicating with others, the focus is usually on the person doing the talking. But it’s often the listeners who facilitate a common understanding and a meaningful exchange of ideas.

And yet, from the moment we are born, we soon learn that what comes out of our mouths makes us the center of attention. When we cry or coo, our parents and others respond in a positive way. As we grow up, this pattern is frequently reinforced in our quest for recognition and independence. But once we reach the age of maturity, some of us fail to realize that the world–and those around us–doesn’t exist solely for our benefit. The desire to be listened to is universal.

Stronger bonds, better relationships

Having an audience doesn’t just satisfy our egos. When others are interested in what we have to say, it can soothe and reassure us in any number of ways. We may feel cared for, respected and even loved when others hang on our words, regardless of what they are. How many of us have felt a stronger bond with someone after an engaging discussion–especially one where we did most of the talking?

That is not the case if we feel shortchanged in that department. How many arguments have escalated or relationships have fallen apart amid shouts of “Why aren’t you listening to me?!” or “Why don’t you let me speak?!” If we are put on the spot, we speak out in our defense. If we are anxious or upset, we want to vent. If we aren’t allowed to say what’s on our minds, things can easily go from bad to worse.

Listening and learning

But listening is about more than emotional satisfaction. In reality, it is one of the best ways to acquire knowledge–about others, the world at large, and even ourselves. Ernest Hemingway, the literary giant, once noted that he “learned a great deal from listening carefully.” He might not have been able to write with such a powerful voice if he not paid attention to so many other voices.

When we encourage people to share what’s on their minds, the results can be interesting, enlightening and even eye-opening. While we all have insights and experiences that are ours alone, they can inspire others and help them to learn and grow. Given a few moments of our time, that quiet, seemingly dull person over there may well end up sharing something that makes our next few minutes, or even the rest of our lives, that much better.

There  are plenty of people who will gladly speak if given half a chance, but that is not necessarily the case. Many of us are shy or introverted, or have learned through (bad) experience that it’s best not to say too much because others probably won’t (or don’t) care. We have to believe that those we are conversing with are genuinely interested in our thoughts. We want our words to not only be absorbed, but digested. If they go in one ear and out the other, that can be more frustrating than if we hadn’t been allowed to speak at all.

Totally tuned in

Communications experts maintain that the best way to convey the sense that we really care is through “active listening.”–in essence, being tuned in to what they are saying. That means asking them open-ended questions such as “what happened next?”; leaning forward, nodding reassuringly and making eye contact; repeating paraphrased words back to them, making it clear that we understand; and otherwise encouraging them to carry on talking through a mix of verbal and nonverbal cues.

The great paradox, of course, is that it is not really possible for everyone to be listened to. At any given point in a conversation, someone is speaking and others are not (unless, of course, they are talking or shouting over on another in a desperate bid to have the last word). As in other areas of life, the solution is pretty simple: compromise. That means paying attention to others’ words and body language and working with them to ensure everyone has their turn.

A difficult habit to break

Some people clearly don’t get it, of course, and they miss the usually ample signs that they have grabbed more than their fair share of the conversation. They think only in terms of themselves and what they need or want to say, oblivious to others’ discomfort or disinterest. When those they are speaking with–talking at?–are unresponsive, roll their eyes or fidget uncomfortably, they don’t pick up on the fact that it’s time for them to put their listening hats on. Unfortunately, because the pleasures of having an audience can be a difficult habit to break, the world is filled with over-sharers who just can’t stop.

Sadly, many of us find it hard to escape their presence. We stick around out of politeness or a misplaced sense of reasonableness or obligation. If that is where things stand, then it is time to head for the exits, to make excuses and leave, without feeling guilty about it. It’s one thing to give freely of something that can leave each of us with the sense that it is time well spent; it’s something altogether different when it’s an experience that leaves us feeling utterly spent.

04 Aug

What You Say May Not Be What They Hear

What You Say May Not Be What Others Hear

In theory, communicating with others using spoken words shouldn’t be all that hard, especially where a shared language and culture are involved. And yet, there is often a big disconnect between what we say and what others actually hear.

The “telephone game” serves as a good example of how even simple ideas can be lost in translation when passed from lips to ears. In this popular children’s activity, one individual secretly chooses a word or phrase and whispers it to somebody else. That person does the same, and so on until everyone has taken part. At that point, they compare what was said at the beginning to what was heard at the end. More often than not, there is a significant (and occasionally laughable) difference between the two.

More than words alone

Such discrepancies stem from the fact that communication is more than just words. When we open our mouths and start talking, those we are speaking to not only have to hear what we are saying, they have to translate those sounds into terms they can understand. Both phases can be disrupted in any number of ways.

Needless to say, if ambient noise levels or the distance between us and our audience is too great, at least some of what we say won’t get through, which can lead them to fill in the gaps themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean our message will be mangled, of course. In fact, the ability to work with incomplete information is a skill that most of us are born with, probably as a matter of survival. However, because words can have many meanings, such interruptions increase the prospect of a miscommunication.

Another issue is whether would-be listeners are paying attention or are otherwise distracted. The distractions don’t have to be external: if people have a lot on their minds or are trying to juggle many things at once, they may have a hard time grasping at least some of what we are saying. Despite what the technology marketers say, humans don’t multi-task very well; the part of our brains that decides which sensory inputs get processed invariably downplays some at the expense of others, potentially allowing what we just said to fall through the cracks.

In addition, those we are trying to communicate with may be focused on what they are going to say next or are thinking about issues they consider more important (how many of us have done that?). The biases people have—maybe they think they know more about a subject than we do—the feelings they are experiencing—if they are angry, for example. they may zero in on the “wrong” words—and their underlying assumptions—perhaps they doubt about our motives—can transform our words into something else.

Differences in communication styles and perspectives can also make it difficult for those we are speaking with to accurately assess what we are saying. Whether they rely on feelings or logic, are more comfortable processing visual information or sounds, see things literally or figuratively, or find it easier to communicate with those who share similar conversational styles, they may not be able to get a real handle on information presented to them in another way.

How, when and where also matter

Equally important is how we express ourselves. Are you aware, for instance, how you come across to others? Whether we know it or not, our body language and the way we say things can have a significant impact on how well (or how poorly) our message is received. If it sounds like we are giving orders or initiating a hot-lights interrogation, or if we touch on certain sore points or hot button issues, we may find that our words are maligned to the point where they trigger an unwelcome response.

Expectations can influence how our words are received. In some settings, for instance, the person we’re speaking with might not be able to quickly process an abrupt and abbreviated recap of something known only to us. In fact, context plays an important role in the communication process. If we make incorrect assumptions about what listeners know or don’t provide enough details for them to understand where we’re coming from, they can miss the point entirely. As in other areas of life, shortcuts are handy, but they can also lead people astray.

It goes without saying, of course, that mumbling, speaking too fast or slow, having a pronounced accent that people are not familiar with, using words incorrectly, or infusing our language with emotions that can alter their meaning will boost the odds of our being misunderstood.

The fact is, while the listeners are often blamed for communications failures, the process is clearly a two-way street. Both sides need to to do their part to make sure a message gets through as intended.

Perhaps the process is not so easy after all?

30 Jul

We All See the World Differently

We All See the World Differently

Everybody knows that a cloudless sky is blue, a well-watered lawn is green, the midday sun looks like a bright yellow ball, and a Red Delicious apple is a shiny, er, red–right?

But what does this really mean? Unless someone is color blind–which is, according to Wikipedia, the “inability or decreased ability to see color, or perceive color differences, under normal lighting conditions”–the implication is that your version of green–or any other color for that matter–is roughly the same as mine.

And yet, how do we explain the infamous February 2015 meme about a particular item of clothing. As countless media outlets reported at the time, “the internet almost broke” after a heated debate over the colors of a striped dress. To some, the garment in question was gold and white; to others, it was black and blue. Many of those who voiced an opinion were passionate about their decision; in the end, it seemed like few changed their minds.

Perceptions and perspectives

At the very least, that episode suggests our perceptions about the world, even in regard to the simplest of matters, can vary a great deal. The fact that things might look different from another perspective, under altered conditions, or in a changed setting is not even considered. There are also the unseen aspects–the sweet flesh beneath the apple’s skin or, perhaps, a bruise on its bottom–that can influence our sense of just how red-ripe the piece of fruit really is.

In reality, such considerations don’t even begin to take account of the experiences, associations and beliefs that can and do influence perceptions of what is before our eyes. A lowly landscape worker might only see the patina of brown dust churned up by a hot-day mow. The hue of the daytime sky might seem as soft and cozy as the baby blue blanket a child was swaddled in when she was young. A long, painful life might have made that orb in the sky appear much darker over time.

Not so black and white

The point is, given how hard it can be to agree on something that seems straightforward, it is a mistake to assume that the same doesn’t apply in most, if not all, areas of life. If, for example, we conclude as a group that something is “black and white,” can we really be sure about how each party to the agreement has defined their shades of understanding? If not, it is easy to see how situations can quickly turn sour.

How many slights, for example, have we experienced because we assumed others saw things the way we do? How many arguments were started over differences in perceptions, even relatively small ones, about a shared experience? How many bad decisions have we made based on others’ assumptions about reality that turned out to be much different than ours?

If the answers to such questions are more than a few, it makes sense to start looking at things in a new light.

26 Jul


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