I have been noticing how often I hear or read, “It is just a perception problem,” or “That is your perception” and “Perception is reality.” These are bantered about quite frequently and often to dismiss another person’s input. But, I wonder how many people really understand how perception works. Here is my conception of it.
Perception is derived from “to perceive or observe.” It is a function of a real-time experience of the world — how I/we look at something, in other words. This is compared to conception, or the idea of something. This article is not my perception, it is my conception of how this works. I think the world mixes these up a lot. When someone says, “Oh, that is just your perception,” they often mean your idea or concept.
There is a very important relationship between your perceiving of the world and your conceiving of the world, and this is where we run into lots of problems. When anyone has very strong ideas about something it distorts their ability to perceive with clarity. This distortion factor is what makes 10 people observe the same situation and get 10 different realities. Our ideas about something make us filter out some information and focus on other information. It serves as a gatekeeper, so to speak. And for the person perceiving, it becomes what is real to them, and then he/she acts on that. This is kind of scary when you think about how many realities there may be running around out there.
I had many experiences with labor/management issues, where both sides did not trust the other because of their concepts of each other. I was trying to get a cooperative effort going, but the managers could only see all the negative things that the membership did. And on the other side, the workers dismissed all the positive things management tried to do. To create cooperation, we had to re-conceptualize each other. That could only happen when we could suspend old ideas, at least temporarily, to examine some new possibilities. It was tough personal work, since I could not make anyone do this. Reassessing one’s concepts is a very personal and individual thing.
As we watch the rising tension of race relations in this country, I can see how both sides (African-Americans and police) are forming stronger concepts about each other and how that distorts efforts for change. When I can see only my negative past when looking at someone, trust is destroyed before the conversation begins. That works both ways.
It is very hard to drop one’s past history with someone in order to see and hear where someone is right now. We as a community have gone through a tough political time recently, and if we are not careful we can build up resentments and negativity that will distort going forward. If we let that build up, we will destroy trust and our ability to cooperate.
No community, organization or team can work well with that kind of atmosphere. We stop giving people the benefit of good will. We begin looking for actions that fit our conception of the opponents, and we ignore positive actions. We seek out only those whose realities fit our own, and push those different farther away. I am not speaking to only one side here.
It is very easy to take a temporary split and begin a spiral of separation, reinforced by selective perceiving. Perception is reality, to the individual. The more we can get some kind of shared reality then we enhance trust, and find ways to work together. It is not easy.
Our individual ability to perceive with clarity and limited distortion means we have to slow down our mind a bit. When we have a knee-jerk reaction to something or someone, we can use that as an opportunity to stop ourselves and attempt to understand the ideas we have that created the reaction. It is not the “other” who created your reaction, but how you conceive the other. You have the power to re-conceive the world and make it work better for you.
Columbus retiree Tom Lane served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s letters to the editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.