Perception vs. Facts: An Important Distinction

Have you ever had someone confront you with something that seemed totally out of left field? Or perhaps you’ve had a difficult conversation that led you to realize you were wrong about something?

Part of what makes difficult conversations difficult is that they are frequently not based on facts. No, I’m not calling everyone a liar – I’m referring to the distinction between perception and fact.

Most people believe their perception of a situation to be a reality, i.e., to be fact. They believe their interpretation of what happened– their perception of fact – to be fact. Facts, however, are the direct, objective observation of what happened, e.g., a deadline not met, a promise not delivered, a statement made.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you have a big presentation to pull together for work – you stay up late the night before putting all the finishing touches in place. You’ve dedicated a lot of time and energy to this presentation. You have a room full of co-workers on the big day, and you begin presenting. You’re a few minutes in, and you notice one of your co-workers on her phone. You assume she’s disengaged, and as a result, you feel disappointed and irritated – and decide not to make an effort to involve her in any more of your project.

Unfortunately, while the fact that your co-worker was on her phone is true, your assumption of why (perception) turns out to be incorrect. She’s so excited about the project you’re presenting on that she’s taking notes on the topic and how her team might be able to support your effort. But you’ve removed her from future project meetings, and therefore you’ve eliminated an opportunity for support. Plus, as a result of feeling irritated and frustrated with her, you may find that the two of you end up having a difficult conversation.

Difficult conversations are largely fueled by two things: perceptions (interpretation of facts) and the desire to be right. Think about it – if you’ve made the decision to remove your co-worker from future meetings based on your perception, it’s not easy to put pride aside and admit you were wrong, even if someone else brings it to your attention.

Some have posed that the need to be right is a form of violence—wars have started from the need to be right and proving others wrong. When conversations are motivated from a place of needing to be right and proving the other person is wrong, the conversation very rarely results in a good outcome—at least to one side of the conversation.

So the question becomes, how can I, as a leader, parent, friend, etc., move a conversation based on perception and the need to be right to a shared understanding of a core set of facts and a commitment to move forward and build the relationship? Here are a few steps.

  1. Acknowledge that perceptions (yours and others’) are generally self-interested.
  2. State the facts as you see them, carefully focusing on objective, observable facts – not your perception of the facts. In our example, you might simply say “I saw you on your phone during my presentation.”
  3. Be transparent about your thoughts, including your perception of the facts as you see them—”this is how I am viewing this situation.” In our example, you might say, “When I saw you on your phone, I assumed that you were disengaged and bored.”
  4. Acknowledge that your life experience influences your point of view. In our example, you might say, “I know when I’m feeling bored or uninterested, I tend to scroll through my phone.”
  5. Then ask to hear the other person’s story—with a careful eye to noting which facts s/he emphasizes, how the facts are interpreted (perceptions), and if the perceptions result in labeling the situation or people involved.
  6. Be curious and be open to allowing your assumptions to be tested and be curious and sensitive in testing others’ assumptions. Understanding another person’s perspective does not mean that you have to give up on your perspective. Both perspectives can exist, and in fact, the best solutions to any challenge lie in the diversity of thought – provided that we give up the need to be right.

In closing, I want to shout out to Stagen Leadership Program to raise my awareness of this topic. The example I used, and tips I’ve given wouldn’t be possible without their enlightening educational materials. Here’s to being better communicators!