Perception: What if we weren’t so quick to judge?
Is there such a thing as an objective truth in life? It is a debate for the ages, a philosophical question that quite possibly doesn’t have an answer. Too often in my life and in my career I have had conversations which eventually reduced themselves to the question, “…the truth according to whom? Is this your truth? Is it possible that the other person/party also has a truth or a unique view which also impacts this situation?”
Let’s begin with a personal example. I was in the passenger seat of my car, cruising along the highway at a really nice speed, engrossed in a meaningful conversation with my husband about the lyrics to a 1980’s pop tune; time well spent. Without warning, a dark-colored pick-up truck crossed over two lanes of traffic from our left, at a ridiculous speed, slams on the brakes, and stops dead in front of us. The driver of the pick-up truck is waving his arms out the window and honking his horn. My husband is red-in-the-face cursing loudly and casting wild aspersions about the [wacky] (because I can’t write what he actually said) driver. In about two seconds, we have reduced this driver to a drugged-up, redneck, who was texting-and-driving, without regard for the law or human life.
Although shaken and a bit unnerved by the situation, my mind reacted in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. While we were reactively judging the driver and making our own deductions based on what we had just witnessed, an unexpected thought stopped me. I reached over to put my hand on my husband’s arm and wondered aloud, “Is it possible that his 4-year-old daughter was just rushed to the hospital with serious injuries from a fall?” I continued to speculate. “Maybe he’s scared, sad, or tired from working two back-to-back shifts and hasn’t slept because he also cares for his 60-year-old father who is struggling with dementia?” The hypotheticals ran rampant in my mind, but all pointed to the same concept—we can’t properly assess the situation based on our perception of it. There could be so much more to this man that we wouldn’t possibly understand by simply taking his appearance and these 15 seconds worth of actions at face-value.
We make incredible, snap judgments about people and situations with extraordinarily limited information and, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us are terrible at it. To make matters worse, we are instantly angered when others do the same to us – when we are reduced to a cliché; when we are stereotyped on the basis of, say, the vehicle we drive – why, for example, if we’re from the northeast US, is the assumption that all pick-up truck drivers are ‘rednecks’?
The Importance of Reserving Judgement
A number of years ago I was working with an employee who struggled with significant performance problems. Her business unit leader came to me asking to have her terminated for poor performance. She had been absent many times, struggled to meet the demands of the job, and her co-workers reported witnessing her lash out emotionally at her team members. I asked to meet with the employee face-to-face before any additional performance counseling took place. The employee, Alice, came to meet me and we spent nearly two hours together.
At first Alice was angry and was very reluctant to talk with me. I asked her what she liked about her work, the company, her team. She was encouraged to share stories about her life outside of work and about what activities she enjoyed when she wasn’t at her job. I came to learn that Alice was a single mother of four children who were between the ages of 8 and 28. They all lived with her in a two-bedroom apartment. None of her three adult children worked or contributed to her finances. She had given up her previous month’s rent to cover the cost of her middle son’s college tuition payment. Because she was delinquent on her rent, the landlord had locked her out of her apartment, so she and her youngest child were sleeping in her car. When she asked the landlord to grant her access to her apartment to gather some clothing, they found that her home had been broken into and robbed, but she had no renter’s insurance.
Her absences were caused by frequent hospital stays because she had poorly managed diabetes and uncontrolled asthma, and was having difficulty affording the co-pays for her medication, as well as quality food. She was literally sick-and-tired. Alice was embarrassed by her situation, fiercely proud of her children, and incredibly loyal to her work team – she knew she was letting them down, but didn’t know where to turn for help.
We arranged for a paid two-week personal leave of absence, funded through anonymous donations of vacation time from her co-workers. We connected Alice with our regional legal aid association for assistance with her pending eviction, and with our on-site medical team to evaluate her health issues and to find solutions to put her back on track to greater physical wellness. She was able to work with the community college to arrange financial aid for her son, and with a local health and human services organization for personal counseling and housing assistance.
After two weeks Alice was back at work, grateful for the support of others, and deeply committed to her co-workers. She still had a long way to go, but had new-found energy, was living safely, sleeping and eating appropriately, and getting the help she needed. We now had a stronger, more productive and intensely dedicated employee.
By terminating Alice based on her manager, business unit leader, or team’s perception of her, we would have lost an employee with a lot of potential and, even worse, would have made life more difficult for Alice and her family. I am not suggesting that each low performing employee be retained or that behavioral issues don’t warrant warnings. I am saying that we are often too quick to judge a situation by our initial perception and, admittedly, none of us has a perfect track record when it comes to making assumptions (didn’t anyone ever tell you what happens when you assume?). By digging a little deeper, and reserving judgment until we have enough facts, we grant others the same respect and dignity that we demand for ourselves.
People as Labels
Our world allows, and perhaps even condones, a view of people as objects – when asked to describe someone, where do we start – he is tall, she is short, he is a dentist, she is a cook, they have tattoos, we are parents, he is lazy, she’s a ball-of-fire. Often these labels not only describe us, but can also define us. These descriptors are generally easy to discern about people and each has its own meaning for the interpreter. For example, someone with tattoos must be a rebel and own a motorcycle; someone who works as a cook (rather than a chef) must be uneducated, and so on. But, whose ‘truth’ is this?
As I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, I came across an incredible video produced in Denmark – the video makes a powerful statement about the boxes we place people in by labeling them or immediately casting judgment. It does not imply that these initial labels are inherently wrong, but rather stresses the importance of looking beyond immediately observable attributes to learn more about someone. By doing so, we may find that they are more (or sometimes less) like us. These other attributes are what makes them (and us) interesting. These less visible qualities subjectify people – they make us human.
To develop this appreciation of each other’s similarities and differences, we must constantly find ways to redraw the lines of our boxes, to see ourselves and others as more than a set of labels, to understand our unique stories, to ask questions that deepen our understanding, to not jump to a conclusion about someone’s motives, and to give grace. It opens doors to relationships, to collaboration, to kindness, to forgiveness, and is a powerful means for making a better world.
Looking Beyond the Boxes
A cautionary word is in order. Seeking others’ perspectives is not a habit for most of us. It requires work and conscious attention. My husband shared with me that one of his personal commitments is to alter his driving behavior. He is becoming less agitated and judgmental behind the wheel – it is taking a great deal of effort to be less critical, yet he is finding value in it. It takes a lot of practice and even some coaching to develop the skill.
What might your life look like if you chose to see beyond the boxes or lines you’ve created for your world? Are you willing to adopt an outward mindset and look for a different truth? Would your relationships be better? How would you personally benefit by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, even if just for a moment? What would you learn if you were to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’?