Really, you ask?
According to the philosophers at Wikipedia, perception is the organization, identification and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment. But what does that have to do with communications? While most of us have an understanding of perception, we often overlook its importance as we plan what we want to say. How we see the world and process information may be an obstacle to clarity. Simply put, how we see it may be completely different than how our audience sees the world.
Consider, for a moment, the ultimate “black and white” discussions we see in our daily presidential elections. One wonders if we will ever find a middle ground again. Not everyone can be 100 percent right. But until you see an issue from the other side, finding that middle ground is impossible. But I digress.
The Blind Men and The Elephant
An old tale from India illustrates the strength the perspective brings to communications. It’s about six blind men and an elephant. Each man gets a chance to “feel” the elephant. But as you might imagine, what each man “sees” is unique to what part of the elephant he touches.
One man, touching the leg says an elephant is a pillar. Another disagrees and says it’s a rope. Of course, that man was holding the elephant’s tail. The man closest to the truck says it’s a thick branch of the tree while the one closest to the ear insisted that an elephant is a big hand fan. The man near the elephant’s belly declared it was a huge wall and the sixth man, who held on to the tusk, insisted it was a solid pipe.
Six “blind” men. Six different aspects of an elephant. Six different “beliefs” about the reality as truth.
The Portable Perception Device
To apply that parable to daily life, consider my portable perception device. It’s an expensive piece of equipment – or is it?
I was working with a group of product marketing executives on messaging, recently. They were arguing amongst themselves on what the priority benefits were. Each was right. But at the time, they didn’t want to hear that. So I stood in the middle of the conference room and challenged them.
“Look up here,” I said. And surprisingly, they stopped arguing and paid attention. I stood holding out my hand. I let them stare at if for a few seconds before I challenged them, “What do you see?” The first response was crickets. Nada. Nothing.
“Come on, what do you see?” I was smirking and staring at each one until one piped up.
“Your holding your hand out,” he said.
“Be more specific,” I responded.
“I don’t know,” another said. “I see you palm.”
As we went around the table, each realized that they saw a different facet of my hand. I pointed out that while one was seeing my palm, another saw the right side with my ring finger and another saw the left side with my thumb. All the while I was looking at the back of my hand.
One hand. Many facets, each with different details.
Then I challenged them to look at the product benefits from each other’s point of view. It was like magic!
By guiding the group to look at the issues from another’s perspective, they were able to see the problem we faced from a new angle, finding new information and ultimately, being open to another aspect. This allows empathy to return to communication process.