My husband has a wicked sense of humor. For years, I often misperceived his dry wit as criticism, especially if I had been silently rehashing what seemed a less than sterling something that I did or said in the past with a client. If I didn’t pause to check and notice his expression or ask if he was criticizing me, I was off to the reactive races moving into some form of criticism of him or withdrawing entirely for a period. Even now that I know better and appreciate his humor, I can still get triggered and forget to pause and reconsider whether my initial perception is true.
How we perceive another’s words usually leads directly to what we say and do. This need not be the case, especially when the impact of our actions can damage others and our relationships with them. Perceptions and actions often behave as identical twins developing from one fertilized egg with the same genetic information, i.e., our perceptions.
Ideally, what we perceive and how we act can be more like fraternal twins developing from two individual eggs fertilized by two sperm and producing genetically unique individuals , i.e., responses that don’t necessarily follow logically from initial perceptions. What makes the difference is personal agency, observing and evaluating perceptions and consciously determining what impact we want to have and therefore what we want to do or say.
Because the brain’s purpose is to keep us safe, our perceptions tend to focus on the negative. We notice things that threaten our sense of wellbeing or how we see the world more than we do what supports us or what we have in common with colleagues and neighbors. You’ve likely heard this referred to as “negativity bias.”
We are in the middle of a pandemic of negatively biased perceptions: scientists and governments are “out to get us”; we believe those on opposite ends of the political spectrum are out to destroy the country. Focusing on our differences and how we differentiate ourselves, is increasing the chaos, lack of cohesion, and the sense of an “us.” It is American individualism on steroids. We seem to care less about our impact on others or the whole of us than we do on maintaining identities.
Although fraternal twins are conceived, develop, and are born at the same time, they have different genetic information, they develop differently and they don’t even look the same. Our perceptions can follow a fraternal-like path where our actions are not knee-jerk reactions to first impressions. The key is pausing to notice whether our perceptions make sense to us once we become aware of them.
Four Questions to Shift Perceptions
Let’s consider how we might apply an adapted version of Byron Katie’s questions from Loving What Is: Four questions that can change your life. Faced with strongly held perceptions that usually turn into beliefs, pose the following four questions to yourself:
- Is my perception true?
- Can I absolutely know it’s true?
- How do I react, what do I want to say or do, when I believe this perception?
- What might be possible if I questioned this perception?
How might these questions operate in reality?
When someone, let’s call him Sam, asks you several questions in a meeting at work that seem to challenge your ideas about how to complete a project, do you perceive this as an attack? Is this perception true? You can redirect the emotional energy evoked by your impression that it is an attack by asking yourself, “Is Sam attacking me or is he simply curious?”
How can you know your initial perception is accurate? Pause. Wait. Notice Sam’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and the pacing of his questions.
How are you reacting—what do you want to say or do—when you believe your perception is accurate? For example, “Sam, I am sick and tired of you questioning every idea I come up with. What’s your problem?” What do you imagine the impact of saying this will be on Sam, on your relationship with him, or on the group? Does this align with your intention?
What might be possible if you questioned whether your perception is correct? Engage in provisional behaviors such as listening to Sam’s questions and being open to changing the way you see him and his intentions. Ask questions of your own like, “Sam, I appreciate your curiosity about my ideas. How might they help us complete the project?”
Perceptions and Actions Can Behave as Fraternal Twins
Asking these questions strengthen your ability to at least observe and even reconsider initial impressions so you can make a conscious decision on what to say and do. Perceptions and actions don’t need to be identical twins triggered from the same genetic material. They can differ, like fraternal twins.
To ask yourself these questions, however, you need to notice your perceptions in the first place. This requires pausing, creating a space between perception and action, noticing whether what you are about to say and do aligns with your intention to have a positive impact on others and the whole of us.
With gratitude and respect, always,
David Sibbet and I are offering our Generating New Fields of Awareness again virtually Dec. 14-17, 2021. Please join us. Learn more about it here: https://www.glencommunity.org/generating-new-fields-of-awareness-workshop