When I was in college, I had a poster in my dorm room with the words “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Credit for the quote goes to Alan Greenspan, the famous economist and former chair of the Federal Reserve for the United States. The quote intrigued me then, and it continues to give me food for thought especially when I’m attempting to help my clients figure out each other’s intentions and their own perceptions. This is deep stuff!
To oversimplify (because this is a three minute read), let me start by labeling “intention” as being internal. Your intentions belong to you and you alone. On the other hand, “perception” is external. Perceptions belong to those people who are in receipt of your intentions. Let me give you some examples:
In the workplace, you see yourself as confident. You’ve had years of experience and you know what you’re doing. Your co-workers see you as arrogant.
At home, you see yourself as strong. You make decisions and you stick to them. Your family sees you as rigid.
You’re in the beginning stages of a new relationship, so you choose to be quiet. You think you’re being a good listener. The other person sees you as passive.
You are part of a weekly golf foursome and you see yourself as an energetic player. You whistle, shout, and swear. The others in your group think you’re hyper and suggest you switch to decaf.
It’s human nature to blame the others for their failure to understand your intentions.
Now ask yourself how blaming somebody else is helpful. The answer is, it’s not.
Instead, reach out to those you think are misunderstanding you and ask them what you can do to alter their perception of you. Maybe ask your co-workers: “is there a better way for me to share my insight so as to appear knowledgeable rather than arrogant?” To your family, ask: “what can I do to be more flexible?” To your date, ask: “how can I better show you that I’m interested in what you’re saying?” And to your golf buddies: “would you prefer me to dial down my enthusiasm?”
At the end of the day, the issue of intention versus perception is about the words we use. (Doesn’t that apply to everything?) First we need to know how to start the conversation, whether it’s teeing off on the first hole, or discussing this week’s agenda with your work team. While you’re figuring out what to you want to say, take an extra moment to understand your audience. If you find yourself being misinterpreted, start all over again. “Let me say it another way” is a good option. The goal of aligning your intentions with another person’s perception isn’t as daunting if you know your audience almost as well as you know your own story.
Any insight you can provide will be appreciated.