Change the Reality of Perception

“That’s not how I said it!” – Amanda Wright, my daughter

If you haven’t noticed by now, there is a growing trend in using my daughter’s quotes for my message inspiration.  In many cases, her age and maturity provides us clarity to see through the fog of our own experiences.  In other cases, that same age and immaturity highlight the importance of learning from past experiences to become a better person, a better leader.

This week’s message is one based on the latter.  An opportunity to learn from wisdom not always gained at her age and inexperience.  But sadly so, a lesson so often missed by us – who can’t blame ignorance on a lack of age or experiences.  Read on and see if you agree.

Back to my daughter, and a conversation we had over lunch last week.  As we sat discussing the topic of the day (to be honest, I don’t even remember what it was), Amanda smirked back a reply but with that tone of defiance and disrespect too common with youth of her age.  She answered her mother’s question, no questioning that.  But the way she spoke those words left both of us furious.

“Amanda, don’t speak to your mother in that tone,” I immediately replied.  “What tone?” she said. “You know exactly what tone I’m referring to young lady,” I replied. “Your voice was sarcastic and disrespectful.”

“That’s not how I said it!” she replied.

Oh but it was. I heard it. My wife heard it. Yet Amanda continued to argue she had not. Now, either she is the world’s best liar (and I promise you she is not), or she truly did not grasp the impact of her tone. And even if it wasn’t fully intended to be rude, it was absolutely received that way.

In business it is so often EXACTLY the same result.  We speak or present in ways we think are appropriate, and yet many times our audience “receives” that message in a very different way.  And regardless of HOW we think we delivered that message, it is their PERCEPTION that dictates how they receive it.

Take the following example.  A few weeks ago I met with one of our clients.  The situation at this client had bubbled to a point I needed to intervene, but surprisingly not for reasons you might think.  Our delivery to the client was top notch.  There was no flare up, no misstep to create frustration with the client.  And yet this client sponsor was ‘madder than a wet hen’ (to use an old cliché).

As we talked through the frustration, I carefully dug in to the details.  And suddenly there it was.  The client had interpreted our team’s actions and responses over the past few weeks in a very different way than they were intended.  They said and did nothing wrong.  Yet the client perceived it differently.  The client believed our words and actions of late were patronizing.  And whether we were or not, that perception became the client’s reality.

Which brings us full circle to my daughter. Perhaps my daughter meant no disrespect in her tone. Perhaps that’s how her friends all speak to each other. But she failed to understand the perception her tone would create for me and my wife. We are parents, and we expect a different tone. And when we hear something different, we perceive disrespect.

And so it is easy to fall prey to the perception trap. We say something that is received in a very different way. We act or behave in meetings in ways we think are professional, but are perceived as disrespectful. We present a message that fails to connect with our audience, not because the message isn’t compelling, but because the manner in which we present creates a different perception with the audience.  And too often it fails to connect because that perception becomes their reality.

So what can you do about it?  How can you overcome the perception trap?  How can you avoid sending the wrong message or creating a very different one than you intended? The truth is an entire book could be written on this subject.  But let me offer a couple of tips to keep in mind that may help avoid the perception trap:

  1. Know Your Audience – There is no more important tip than this one.  How individual will interpret a message depends entirely on their perspective.  A client focused solely on cost savings might perceive a message on candidate quality as an affront on their cost focus.  And a client with pride in their recruitment process might view feedback on improving that process as critical when its meant to be constructive.  So you must first understand your audience and their priorities if you are to connect your message with them.
  1. A Balanced Perspective – Several of you may have heard me reference this concept before.  A balanced perspective, or taking the outside/in approach, is a method of projecting yourself in the eyes of your audience.  Knowing your audience is half the battle, but you should also test your message in their eyes.  Taking a balanced perspective, or looking outside/in at how that message will be received helps you tailor your approach so it is received properly.
  1. Speak Their Language – Sometimes referred to as parroting, use language that is familiar to them.  How many times have I seen our own team present using our terminology instead of the clients?  And then we confuse them with the inevitable alphabet soup of three letter acronyms.  And we expect the audience to understand?  The truth is they perceive very differently – either we don’t understand them, or we are so arrogant as to think it should always be ‘our way’.  Not the message we meant at all, but it’s exactly how they perceived it.
  1. Pay Attention to the Signs – No matter how hard you try, you will step in to the ‘perception trap’.  That’s expected, but it’s how you adjust that can often determine the outcome.  Look for signs and react to them.  Few of us are true poker players, and as a result tend to wear our emotions and reactions right on our face.  And if not, in our actions.  So look for the signs – browed faces, pursed lips, crossed arms.  And when you see it, adjust.  And don’t be afraid to ask for their reactions.  More often than not they will tell you just how they feel.

Perception is reality. It always has been. And your ability to become a leader – individually or as a team manager – will largely depend on whether your message is getting through.  Don’t let perception change that outcome. Change the reality of that perception…


4 thoughts on “Change the Reality of Perception

  1. Great post Kip! This would have been helpful for me six weeks ago when we hosted a team from Spain to discuss a project. We discussed the Business Development Officer title within our group for more than two hours when I had to stop the conversation and back-track to figure out their confusion. They were under the impression that BDOs were responsible for selling commercial business, but in reality are our new business “hunters.”

    If I had tuned-in to the confusion on their faces at the start of the discussion, I could have saved at least two hours of our time! Now I know!


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