Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Are You Sure it’s About You? Try a Perception-Check!

(A day late on blogging... juggling a grant project and continued book deadline—more exciting news on that very soon! Before I get into this week’s topic, which is back to some interpersonal communication fun, I want to give an important shout-out. First, a qualifier: I don’t stick my neck out quickly or easily. I never recommend anything or anyone I can’t fully wrap my heart and head around. So, if I’m ever “promotional” in this space, it is never in blithe spirit.

In that regard, I am excited to share news about Isa Adney’s countdown to her book release—Community College Success. This is an exciting day, not just for Isa, but for community college students everywhere. Community colleges are hugely under-represented in the college success book market! Isa, a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, who faced many obstacles to her college education, is a true testament that community college students can end up with literally endless possibilities. Follow her countdown to her book launch at: I’ll be happily reviewing Isa’s book in a future post. Now, on to some perception-checking!)

When was the last time that you got into an argument with someone and you were absotively, posilutely certain that what they were saying was about you?

Let’s face it…

When you see a friend on campus and they suddenly don’t say hello to you or make eye contact, that has to be because they don’t like you anymore, right?

When you go out with someone for the first time, and they don’t ask you out again, it must be because you’re unlovable, right?

When the server at your favorite restaurant acts put out because you said your burger was too rare, they must think you’re a total pain in the ass, right?

Look how happy they are! On a slide and
I bet they've done a perception-check!
It all has to be about you!


What if your campus friend is just having a bad day, or he didn’t see you?

What if the girl you went out with lost your number or got really sick? (She’d better have gotten sick if she didn’t call, right?)

What if the server is having back problems or financial issues, or a co-worker just snapped at them?

Hmm… each of those scenarios have absolutely nothing to do with you!

When bad communication exchanges happen, we are hard-wired to make knee-jerk judgment calls: We think something negative about ourselves, or something negative about the other person.

(Psst… Usually, we start tearing ourselves down first, unless we’re angry at the other person.)

Then, what do we do? We usually lash out because we’ve been triggered! Arguments ensue and relationships become damaged… unnecessarily.

So what’s the communication lesson here?

Try a perception-check!

With a perception-check, you try to determine at least two alternate reasons why the person did what they did or said what they said.

You attempt to get away from the reason being “all about you.”

My students actually write a journal pondering about this. Want to give it a try? I know… how fun! Blog homework… here goes:  

We've all been in a communication exchange with someone where we automatically jump to conclusions over something that was said. Maybe you became triggered and responded in a way that you wish you could take back. Think of a time that you either did or could have done a perception check and answer the following prompts: 

1. Briefly discuss the situation.
2. Describe your initial (knee-jerk) perception (which is typically something negative about the other person, or something negative about us).
3. Describe two OTHER possible, but different, interpretations of the exchange?
4. Describe how you could confront the situation in a positive way to gain an accurate perception check.

I’ll do the homework, too…

The situation:  My daughter, age 3 at the time, was afraid of physical things, like going down a slide. Her preschool teacher felt that she needed an evaluation from a physician. Her last comment to me was, “Well, you know, she’ll never be a star athlete.”

My initial reaction:  1.  Many curse words in my head that would be inappropriate for me to say in this blog—yes, I’m a communication prof, but I’m a mother, after all; 2. That due to my own personal/family history with obesity, my daughter is going to have problems, too, and it’s already all my fault (she had no weight issue, just FYI).

Other possibilities:  1.  The teacher had no idea about my family history and couldn’t know that her words could trigger me the way they did; 2.  She was trying to be funny and lighten the situation. She wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings.

Describe how I could confront the situation: This is how I actually handled it. For fear of saying something I’d regret in that moment, I told the teacher I’d alert our pediatrician and I walked away. When I felt calmer about a week later, I said,

“Teacher (not her real name), I know you were probably joking when you said that Brenna would never be a star athlete, but I felt really triggered by that and then, because of that statement, I couldn’t hear you anymore. My mother is morbidly obese and I have lost a tremendous amount of weight, myself. I worry about my daughter and I only became a very physical person in my 30s. I realize you had no idea about all of that and probably didn't mean for the comment to have the impact on me that it did.

I also have to respectfully disagree that at 3 years old, we have no idea about Brenna’s physical possibilities—not that I necessarily need her to be a star athlete. But I will say that I really appreciate your care and concern about her physical well-being and I’m going to talk to her doctor.”

The teacher put her arm around my shoulder. I’m not sure to this day if the nonverbal message was that she was patronizing me or comforting me, but I didn’t care. All seemed well with the world again.

(In case you were wondering, my daughter is now almost 9. She was behind the pack learning to ride a bike… she struggles to pass swim tests at our local pool… but she did just voluntarily start “The Chicklets” banked track roller derby. So, she’s trying!)

Before I end this discussion, let me come full-circle to my student-professor communication message:

Perception-checking is huge when it comes to your relationship with your prof. So often, students get a poor grade or they read something negative into a comment the prof has made, and then they send themselves a completely negative message about themselves (or about what a jerk the prof is!).

So, next time you say to yourself, “My prof must hate me for giving me this C!” Or, “Does she think I’m some sort of idiot, based on this comment?”, do the perception-checking exercise I gave you above, and then go to your prof and say (with a smile, if you can):

“I just wanted to check in with you. I’m telling myself all sorts of things about what I think this grade/comment might mean and then I realized I should probably find out what it really means.”

Wonderful students and all of my readers out there, profs (and people in general) are so, so, so (so!) much more likely to set us straight on what they truly mean when we ask them to clarify… rather than when we just react to what we think they said.

The next time that you feel triggered, give perception-checking a try.

Maybe while you’re thinking of the two “other” possibilities, you can hit a park, and in the spirit of my daughter, slide down a slide, or swing on a swing.

If you try this strategy, I’d love to hear how it goes!

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  1. Y'know I'm pretty sure that this whole article is a sideways effort to tell me I've offended you... So I'm gonna go sulk now. ;)

    Tom H

    1. Hi, Tom,

      Well, you know, I'd been meaning to talk to you about that. Let me put this in "I" language :-)...


  2. It really is all about me, all the time. I blame hurricanes on me. Well, at least that's what my wife says!

    1. I so, so, so opened myself up for this, Bruce... I should have known :-). I am laughing so hard right now. Hurricanes! How did I know? It's you! I can't wait to meet you IRL, Bruce! Are you ever in Seattle? Ellen