We seldom are perceived the way we see ourselves or the way we want to be perceived. Contrary to popular belief, our facial expressions are not always readable, our emotions are not that obvious and we don’t communicate as much as we think we do.
In No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson explains how perceptions are born, describes a set of stereotypes and assumptions that affect how people perceive you, the different ways for correcting bad impressions and for overcoming misunderstandings.
Halvorson considers that there are many heuristics and assumptions that guide our perceptions and therefore create inaccurate interpretations of people:
- Assumption #1: The confirmation bias. Some people look at you and see what they expect to see, taking into account the stereotypes of the groups to which you belong, your culture and their past experiences with you.
- Assumption #2: The primary effect. Other people forme their perceptions of you using their initial impression of you. With this assumption, first impressions are lasting impressions.
- Assumption #3: Stereotypes. Stereotypes are the beliefs about categories of people to “better understand” them.
- Assumption #4: The halo effect. The halo effect is the belief that someone, with one powerful positive trait, has a lot more positive traits.
- Assumption #5: The false-consensus effect. The false-consensus effect is the belief that others think and feel the same way that we do.
The Two Phases of Perception
Heidi Grant Halvorson has identified two phases of perception that exist in every interactions:
- Phase 1 or System 1 is the automatic and effortless ability to recognize strong emotions in someone’s facial expression and voice, to identify, categorize and interpret a given behavior, to attach that given behavior to “some aspect of your personality, character or abilities”. First impressions are made in Phase 1. Perception often stops at Phase 1 and people, being busy, tend to rely heavily on heuristics and assumptions.
- Phase 2 or System 2 is the ability, through complex and effortful mental operations to get a complete and accurate understanding of someone, by taking into account additional factors about you. This effort has to purposefully be motivated by an attention-grabbing circumstance.
Distortion of The Phases of Perception
The level of trust, the possession of power and the size of the ego tend have an impact on these phases of perception. However, these distortions can be averted by understanding the circumstances and the wanted results of each interaction.
The level of trust
Most of the time, people are not just trying to make assumptions about you but are trying to find out unconsciously if they can trust you, especially in the workplace: are you a friend or a foe? The decision to trust is made unconsciously in Phase 1 of perception, and depends on the way that you project warmth and competence.
To increase trust to the people around you:
- Convey warmth indirectly by giving subtle but genuine complements, by providing assistance whenever you can, by showing interest in others feelings and thoughts.
- Demonstrate empathy by acknowledging someone else’s perspective.
- Manifest your trust in people first by being cooperative, talking about your vulnerabilities and challenges.
- Transmit competence by making eye contact while speaking.
- Show will power by showing self-control.
- Avoid overconfidence by showing modesty and restraint.
- Adopt a power pose in order to take up most of the space, to signal your competence.
- Emphasize your potential for greatness and for success.
The possession of power
Having more or less power changes the impressions that we form about one another.
Powerful people tend to be overwhelmed with responsibilities and have no time to spare, are focused on their goals, rely heavily on stereotypes to categorize people, stay stuck in Phase 1 of perception. Also, the sad truth is that powerful people don’t pay much attention to less powerful people.
To get noticed by powerful people and to increase your influence:
- Be instrumental to their success.
- Find out how you can align your objectives with those of the powerful.
- Ease their burden.
- Anticipate their needs and challenges.
- Avoid complementing them because they don’t care.
The size of the ego
Perception is distorted by the size of the ego in such ways that you must come out on top, feeling good about yourself.
Your ego has the purpose of protecting and enhancing your self-esteem. To control the way people perceive you through their ego, you will need to:
- Help people enhance their self-esteem.
- Evaluate the threat that you and your abilities pose to your colleagues.
- Be humble about your accomplishments, past and current difficulties. Avoid tooting your own horn, playing dumb or acting like someone else.
- Affirm other people by praising them and their achievements.
- Avoid stereotyping other people.
The eager reward seekers and the vigilant risk mitigators
The safety and security of our personal situations also poses a threat to our perceptions of people, of our colleagues and of our career.
On one hand, the eager reward seeker looks for opportunities everywhere, are effective, risk takers, rule breakers, adventurers, optimistic, motivated, innovative and often creative. Unfortunately, eager reward seekers are prone to fail and to underestimate problems.
On the other, the vigilant risk mitigators see danger everywhere they go, are vigilant, risk averse, reliable, thorough and deliberate, prone to analytical thinking and self-doubt.
To get the best of both types of people, simply adapt your language to each of them by making one see a potential for gain and the other a cautionary plan.
The clingy, anxious and the aloof, avoidant
The need for closeness shapes our relationship with others.
The clingy and anxious people tend to have low self-esteem, need validation, constantly seek closeness and are worried that the people that they have built a relationship with will leave them, see injuries and slights where there aren’t, fear rejection. To accommodate them, practise empathy, don’t take it personally, clarify your speech, stay reliable to this person.
The aloof and avoidant people don’t foster close relationships but instead maintain emotional distance. To accommodate them, don’t take their behavior personally, restraint your own warmth, give them time to open up.
Correcting bad impressions and fighting misunderstandings
Finally, to correct bad impressions and start over on the right track:
- Expose everyone with attention-getting evidence of the contrary evidence of you so they can notice and cannot deny reality.
- Force people to revisit their opinion of you by making them feel that their judgement is unfair or unequal.
- Make people depend on you and need you to reach their goals.
No One Understands You and What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson is a great self-development book that explores the prominent reasons why we are often misunderstood and gives useful advice on how to clean up our reputation, to clarify a difficult situation. Every single conclusion that Halvorson draws is scientifically researched and illustrated with probing examples.
This book is intended for people who have made past mistakes with people and want to correct them. It was absolutely hard to read because Halvorson revealed hard truths, reminded me of the stereotypes that pursue me on a daily basis and that keep interfering with my goals, forces me to question myself and my behavior. In addition, this book made me more self-conscious about my presentation to the world and my decisions, more aware that first impressions are critical, that most people don’t think the same way I do, react the same I do, or perceive me the same way I do.
Furthermore, No One Understands You and What To Do About It was also cathartic and purging, helped me become a better judge of others, understand that the way people treated me in the past was not my full responsibility.
Studies show that while very strong, basic emotions—surprise, fear, disgust, and anger—are fairly easy to read, the more subtle emotions we experience on a daily basis are not.
You are never really starting from scratch with another person, even when you are meeting him or her for the first time. The perceiver’s brain is rapidly filling in details about you—many before you have even spoken a word. Knowing this gives you a sense of what you’ve got going for you and what you might be up against. And the more you can know in advance about your perceiver’s likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses, the better equipped you will be to anticipate what’s being projected onto you.
The benefits of projecting trustworthiness (and the costs of failing to do so) are Enormous, particularly in the workplace. Studies show, for instance, that the willingness to share knowledge with colleagues—a sticking point in most large organizations—is strongly predicted by feelings of trust among employees.