"The uncomfortable truth is that most of us don’t come across the way we intend. We can’t see ourselves truly objectively, and neither can anyone else. Human beings have a strong tendency to distort other people’s feedback to fit their own views. We know this intellectually, and yet we rarely seem to recognize it as it’s happening."
Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist, researcher and an entertaining writer. Her first book, Succeed, is a favorite of mine. She offers fresh, counter-intuitive, thought and action provoking insights into the science of goal attainment.
While No One Understands You and What to Do About It doesn’t rise to the level of Succeed, there are plenty of gems in it as well—and Halvorson is masterful at bringing research and studies to bear in an engaging and often amusing way.
Halvorson’s intent, here, is to help us understand why the way we’re seen by others is often distorted—and how we can be seen the way we want to be seen. Admittedly, one of the challenges that Halvorson addresses is that we don’t see ourselves all that clearly either. Recognizing this is central to the challenge we face.
While much of the research Halvorson shares isn’t new (Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is oft-quoted), her way of organizing and framing it is helpful. And, I’m finding this book most useful in helping me to recognize when my assessments of others are biased—becoming more aware of my actual and potential biases and thereby making more empathetic and fairer assessments of others.
We’re Often Misunderstood
"Without realizing it, you—like everyone else—are very likely operating under two very flawed assumptions: first, that other people see you objectively as you are, and, second that other people see you as you see yourself."
Halvorson’s claim is that it’s hard to be judged accurately—that we’re not open books—even when we think we are. We don’t communicate as clearly as we think we do either verbally or non-verbally. This is true, even with the people who know us well. At the same time, the research tells us that being “judge-able”— allowing others to see us fully leads to more happiness and better adjustment.
By cataloguing a myriad of cognitive biases that influence what we see, the fact that we are often misunderstood starts to make sense. We’re wired to make quick judgments—because of both the evolutionary benefits (that no longer hold so well in a modern world) of those judgments and the fact that slowing down and making more measured assessments requires more energy—and we default to using less energy.
Because we’re most often unaware that our biases are coming into play, our misunderstandings are unconscious—meaning that we believe we are right in our assessments when we can be absolutely wrong. To see more clearly—and accurately—requires slowing down and making more effort—hard cognitive work.
Halvorson makes suggestions for managing the biases with which we are perceived and most of them have to do with being more intentional in our communications and not assuming that others see us the way we wish to be seen. And, perhaps the most powerful tool we have for managing bias is understanding it.
We Are All Cognitive Misers
"Human thought, like every other complex process, is subject to the speed-versus-accuracy trade-off. Go fast, and you make mistakes. Be thorough and diligent, and you take an eternity… Most of the time, just the gist will do, so we choose speed."
Being a cognitive miser means that we use a slew of “shortcuts” to make quick assessments of others based on a variety of heuristics (rules of thumb) and assumptions. There are too many of these at play to cover, so I’ll mention a couple of the big ones.
The most common assumption that guides perception is that when people look at you, they see what they expect to see. This is called confirmation bias. If the perceiver expects you to be dishonest, whatever you say or do will be filtered through that lens and will fit that perception. Similarly, if they perceive you trustworthy. These expectations are based on, among other things—stereotypes, first impressions (often too hastily made) or seeing you as being like someone else the perceiver knows.
Other biases, such as our tendency to assume good intentions for ourselves but not for others, only increases the challenge we have in helping others see us more clearly.
One thing that can help us to overcome this and other biases is to recognize our own tendency to think that others see and feel what we see and feel. The more we recognize that this is not true, the more intentional we can become about the impressions we make—and the less we will assume that others see and experience what we see and experience. We will also work harder and more diligently than we thought necessary to correct mistaken impressions.
The Trust Lens
"The very first thing another person will seek to determine about you is whether he or she can trust you—in broad strokes, whether you are friend or foe."
Halvorson suggests three major lenses of perception that shape the way that we are seen: trust, power and ego. Trust comes first (see above). Then, the power lens looks to answer the question “how much influence do you have over me?” and the ego lens asks “do you make me feel insecure?” I recommend looking at all the lenses—and I’ll focus on the trust lens here.
Research demonstrates that we make automatic assessments of people on two key dimensions—warmth and competence. Warmth tells us whether someone’s intentions are good and competence tell us whether we believe they can act on these intentions. Again, this lens stems from a time when threats were existential—today they operate at a more psychological level.
Research tells us that the answer to “which is more important” is “both.” And, it also tells us, somewhat surprisingly, that starting with warmth is best. This awareness is critical (and sometimes challenging) for organizational leaders.
Strategies for increasing warmth include paying attention, showing empathy and trusting them first. To increase competence, one of the most powerful tools is eye contact.
Getting the balance between warmth and competence right can be a challenge. Halvorson suggests that we can be perceived as warm AND competent by projecting strong character, being fair and honest—which is available to people not “warm” by nature.
One of the conclusions I draw from this book and others I’ve been reading about cognitive bias is that while we benefit from knowing about bias, we will never be immune. We will continue to make biased assessments and to be judged based on others’ biases. That’s how our minds work. I’m also convinced that just knowing how deeply these biases operate helps us in our assessments of others and in the way we manage ourselves.