My colleague Diane Brown and I were chatting the other day about the human difficulty of understanding how others see us. Not quite such a dull conversation as it sounds. Both of us had just had nasty and separate experiences of discovering that we had completely misunderstood how friends and colleagues looked at us. This can be as much a professional problem as a personal one; after all, most of us spend much of our working life meeting new contacts and trying to impress them with our competence.
I like to think I learned this lesson many years ago. Certainly, I am deeply conscious of the fact that perceptions can go badly wrong. Whether or not I have learned the skill of seeing myself as others do is a whole other question. It requires a conscious and almost continuous effort to do it and, frankly, it makes me feel painfully introspective. I don’t enjoy it; it smacks of unnecessary therapy and tiring, over-emotional introspection. Not my natural territory but sometimes necessary.
Painful lessons – Getting it Wrong
Many years ago, as a young man of around 25, I spent a good many months on a military selection course. It was remarkably tough process. About 6 weeks in, those of us still in the race were subjected to several days of exercises and a nasty regime of sleep deprivation. I don’t think I had more than 3 hours in 6 nights – and that was in a ditch! Towards the end we were put through a well-known trial. Sent into a briefing room in front of an audience of about 30 people drawn from inside the organisation, we examinees were simply required to stand up and describe our life history in 5 minutes. Really, it should not have been too tough.
My background is white, middle class, independent school education and an Oxford History degree. Just a fact and no more within my control than that of someone born in a Nigerian slum or to an American billionaire.
Reading the audience
My audience were made up of some exceptionally hard professional soldiers; men of all ranks and backgrounds – except, as I subsequently realised, mine. I stood up and told my story. School, a year out of education and then the ‘varsity. Oxford, I told them, was fantastic. I did a lot of sport, a bit of other stuff and not a lot of academic work for my degree. “I was”, I said, “lucky to be there and probably not bright enough to hold my own against my peers. But, with a bit of luck I pulled off a Second Class Honours degree and moved for a while to industry.”
Now anyone with my background would have understood my message. We all spoke using the same cultural code. Like everyone else, I went up to my College knowing I was lucky to be there, and I worked roughly as hard as everyone else. In my last year we all tied ourselves to our desks in simple terror of looming final exams. For the last three months I studied for 16 or 17 hours a day into the dark of the summer nights. The degree I got was average – because I was average. And I worked for it.
People with that background don’t spend time explaining all this to one-another. Everyone knows and understands the assumptions.
Of course, my military audience didn’t know. They did not share the experience. What they heard was a pompous young man telling them he went to Oxford, mucked about and did frightfully well because he was terribly clever. In short, they did not like me.
Learning my Lesson
I only understood what had happened when a contemporary on the course was kind enough to tell me how I had been received. Friends of his who had been watching told him I had blown it. The news came to me as a nasty shock. I had never worked it out for myself. Probably, at that age, I lacked the experience to be able to do so.
For the sake of full disclosure, I survived another three months of the course before they sacked me. Whether that was because of that one incident I shall never know, but it certainly didn’t help.
And my Critics?
Oddly those self-same soldiers often made a similar mistake. Servicemen then and now are often asked “what is it like to be in combat?” In those days that meant the experience of Northern Ireland or the Falklands. The answer was usually something like: “mostly pretty dull, sometimes it gets a bit exciting. Normally its like a good game of rugby – good fun really.” Of course, we all knew what we meant. We meant it can be really dull, really boring and sometimes really, really frightening ….”. What non-military listeners heard was something quite different. Our real experience and meaning was (and it’s still relevant) quite incomprehensible to those who don’t share the experience.
Is there a Lesson?
Understanding that those with whom you are communicating may not see you as you see yourself is, it turns out, pretty simple. It’s logical and intuitive once we think about it. Having read this you are probably dealing with what you regard as a glimpse of the blindingly obvious. Many will be saying quietly “Yup. I’ve done that too!”
The trick is learning to work out what people are really thinking. Can you identify when it is going wrong and can you work out why? Even better, can you learn how to remain reasonably true to yourself and still put misperceptions right!
The best way of doing this? In my experience you can only do it by working with reliable partners and asking for feedback.
And a final thought. I don’t think the feedback tick-boxes you get given after training sessions and presentations can do this for you. In my experience, judgements made on paper proforma are seldom well thought through to be useful. If you want help, then it’s about developing relationships with people who can be trusted to give complex human advice.
After that, it’s up to you.