Trusting an individual’s perception

Monday afternoon. A bit dull isn’t it? Gazing out the window hoping for the promised Indian summer as opposed to mugginess and humidity. Gotta love British weather. As unpredictable as the day Michael Fish said everything was going to be fine. And you remember how that went. Well I do. I ran into my parent’s bedroom telling them something had fallen off the roof and crashed down below and could I sleep in their room. They said yes and didn’t believe me until they saw the window smashed by a fallen chimney block. Ah to be in 1987 again.

But I’m not writing about the hurricane. I’m writing today about perceptions, and how easily led astray we can be by our own emotions and thoughts. As L&Ders we’re taught to do things such as read the room, gauge feelings from the group, reflect back what the group may be thinking. And on some courses you learn about active listening and how this can impact the level of empathy you have with others. But, something I think we’re not taught about is how to recognise our own perceptions weighed against the perceptions of others.

This is not limited to L&D and is indeed something we are guilty of as a people. If you are talking to someone, one to one, you can and will gain a natural level of empathy. Either through active listening techniques, or not. From their words, tone of voice, intonations, gestures, facial expressions and more, you will understand how the other person is feeling, and how much or not you should be paying attention to them. But, what we are really bad at is identifying with a group of people.

If you take 10 of 100 people and ask if they’re happy, you can only take this data with a pinch of salt. This 10 are hardly representative of the whole, and is fraught with problems. Likewise, if you take one person and ask them what they think others are feeling, you can trust this even less. Unless that one person has the empathic abilities of a Betazoid (Star Trek geek glaxon), one person can never speak for the population you are asking questions about.

This is why when I hear people talk about – “the population thinks this”, I think – erm, actually you mean only the population that you socialise with think like this. For after all, we as humans only interact with those we are amenable with. We do not actively seek out conversation with non-like minded people as this does us no favours. We cannot validate our thinking, gain appreciation of thoughts and actions, or enjoy the company of others if we are not being given some recognition for our part in the relationship.

And it also makes me question the validity of activities such as employee engagement surveys. I don’t disagree with them in principle, as I think they can and do produce some fascinating and interesting results. But unless you have a statistically significant portion of the population responding, even this can only be taken with a pinch of salt. And, those thoughts and feelings expressed will only be present for a finite amount of time, until the next thing comes along.

So when someone says “there’s a general feeling of x”, push it back. Find out more. Don’t trust that, gauge the significance of that statement by questioning it. There may be validity in it, but you won’t know if you take it at face value.

Just some thoughts on this Monday.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “Trusting an individual’s perception”

  1. Good point well made Sukhi. It’s actually quite amazing that often we don’t know ourselves that we are seeking out like mindedness.

    In the L&D world you probably see how we typically sit next to people we know best in training or workshops. We see it in meetings and even networking – that familiar, friendly face. In coaching terms we might call it collusion and the likelihood is that’s exactly what it is at some level.

    The irony is that we explore issues more creatively and learn better when we are working with people we are less familiar with. Take it to a group level and we soon find that what we know is not what we think!

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