I usually cringe when I hear the words “perception is reality,” because I think it could be one of the most dangerous phrases in our culture. Ever have that feeling when you got something totally wrong about a person and kind of had a pit in your stomach? I sure have and certainly don’t like it. One story about a subway ride really helped me clarify a way to think about things differently.
The story comes from one of Stephen Covey’s books that I first heard at the amazing Learning as Leadership seminar in California. A man was sitting on a quiet subway ride one morning when a father and his children got on the train. The children were loud and rambunctious and this really starting irritating the other man on the subway. He couldn’t believe that someone could be so insensitive to others and let his children run wild. The father seemed to validate this further sitting oblivious with his eyes closed, and the man sitting next to him finally spoke up, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.” And the father responded, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother just died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.” As the man on the subway later described, “my irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.” Perception was that he was a bad father. Reality was that he was a father experiencing deep pain and suffering who needed compassion and empathy.
Another way to think about how these images we create can cloud our decisions comes from a fantastic book called Leadership and Self-Deception. “We end up carrying these self-justifying images with us into new situations, and to the extent that we do…we don’t see people straightforwardly, as people. Rather, we see them in terms of the self-justifying images we’ve created.” Like many of us, the man on the subway probably had an image of a good father as someone who could get his children to behave in public. However, this image may have caused him to react too quickly instead of looking for more information.
This story showed me the importance of being more exploratory with my thought process about others. Sure, I need to let someone know when I am really bothered by something, but I try do it in a productive way that doesn’t assume the worst. I certainly still make mistakes, but I am more self-aware of how a “self-justifying image” can influence me into see someone as an object and not a person. I remind myself that I feel the most authentic when I connect to others with an open mind and heart.
I believe you can apply these ideas to almost every situation, and it actually made my life easier when I am driving in traffic. Now when I see a car going slow, I might re-frame my perspective and remember that it could be a family driving home their newborn baby for the first time. I sure would be going slow! It reminds me that another person’s reason for going slow is just as important as my reason for going fast. And I spend a lot less time being frustrated in traffic, so I don’t get upset like this cat!
Ever found yourself in a similar situation as the man on the subway or in traffic? How could you re-frame your perspective to make life easier or your communication more productive? Perception can deceive us in so many ways, and we can make a real impact by expanding our context when making decisions. I believe taking this extra step creates a deeper understanding of our differences and may invite others to do the same. This is a ripple effect that can make our world a better place.