Perhaps you worry about whether people can hear your thoughts or know how you are feeling inside (especially when you are nervous), and that you are an open book to the world. The truth, however, is that people rarely see beyond their own thoughts and feelings. In truth our perception of how people see us and what they think of us is dominated by the fact that we can only see the world from our own point of view.
(Work it out fellas)
Even when someone tells us what is going on, we are only able to hear it through our own filter of experiences and knowledge. This can lead to a lot of confusion and miscommunication.
Why is this important?
Mainly because we tend to oversimplify and generalize other people’s emotions and motivations as well as misconstrue how we are being perceived. We think that because we see patterns that are familiar, we know what their meanings are. When your boss takes a deep sigh and rubs her temples while you are talking, it is easy to put a story to that based on our own insecurity or uncertainty. Fact is that we don’t really know why your boss is sighing and rubbing her head. What does happen to us often is that the gesture will look familiar, and it might trigger a reaction in us that is based on a past experience and not on this one.
This means two things to our ability to communicate and connect.
1. We think we are good judges of other people’s intentions, but we’re not.
2. We think other people will intuitively understand our intentions, but they won’t.
As Miles Davis once said, “If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.”
(And we’d be so cool)
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote about this in her book Nobody Understands You And What To Do About It. In it she talks about all the ways that our intentions can be lost in the behaviors that we have while we communicate.
Truth is that most people are not entirely sure what even they think about themselves, never mind what they think about other people. Or to be precise, even if they do think about other people, they are mostly only thinking about other people in terms of how their actions impact them personally. This is why it is so hard to take critical feedback because we have a difficult time separating the “what” of the feedback from the “who.”
This can get even more complicated when we make sense of other people’s gestures by projecting a story onto them. This projection is often linked closely to a story that we have about what other people think about us (or what we want them to think).
(This is a projection of myself as Tom Cruise in Top Gun)
If you have to be perfect, then you will read negative criticism even in a compliment from your boss. (Perfectionism, by the way, is a way to always feel “less than” as it is an impossible goal when applied to humanity.) When we project our inner stories on everyone around us we can fall into the trap of thinking that we are having an objective experience when we are actually just attaching our own stories to the people around us.
The more that we think we know what people are thinking, based on our own interpretation of their behavior, the harder it is for us to actually engage people where they are. When we are unconscious to this, feedback is challenging and clear communication is almost impossible.
What to do about it?
1. Don’t assume you know what people are thinking. Rather than making assumptions based on our interpretations of other people’s words and actions, focus instead on being curious. Talk about what you are seeing without making a judgment on what that means. For example: “I noticed that you were shaking your head no during the presentation. May I ask was that in regards to the content, the delivery or something else entirely?”
2. Get clarity about your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The more aware you are about your own behavior and how it resonates (or not) with your message, the easier it will be to catch our own body language before it affects how other people receive it. If you tend to have a stern look when you are thinking or if you tend to close your body language when listening, you might be sending the wrong signals to a room.
3. Be curious. The more curious you are about what the gestures really mean and what you are actually experiencing, the easier it will be for you to have the conversation. While we can’t really ever know what people are thinking, conversation and language (if done rationally, openly and honestly) can help create better connections, trust and understanding.
Know your own tics and body language, align that with your tone of voice and your words and you are less likely to be misunderstood.
It’s useless to try to interpret the thoughts and intentions of other people based on your own lens. Stop pretending that you know, get curious and have the conversation.
Nobody really knows and knowing that can be a relief.