Friday, July 01, 2011

Why is Communication So Difficult? Perception.

This is a continuation of a series.  Look at the dated archive to find parts 3.1.1 and 3.1.2.

3.2  So why is communication so difficult?  To a large extent it goes back to the process of perception upon which all human behavior is based but which also has many flaws.

Perception and communication.  Perception is the process of how we organize and interpret the patterns of stimuli around us.  The key words are patterns, organize, and interpret.  Perception is generally universal but not identical on a personal or cultural basis.  That is, two people may see generally the same thing, such as a bird flying in the sky, but not organize and interpret it into the same pattern.  A tribesman may perceive something very different from a city dweller.

3.2.1 Why perception is not perfect – There are several specific reasons, but the general causes of perception being imperfect, incomplete, and just plain wrong is
1.  Perspective.  Where we are seeing or hearing makes a difference; in a sense we have a window on the world which is two or three-dimensional or limited by time; we see in snatches and hear in pieces.  Try sitting in a different place in the classroom; it might be a totally different perceptual experience!
2.  Limitations of senses, either generally or personally.  Age doesn’t help, either!
3.  Internal factors, such as emotional stressors or illnesses
4.  Selectivity, which is our natural way of tuning out the stimuli we neither expect to see or that do not fit our prejudgments.  Not only do we tune them out, but also we distort them to fit our preconceptions, and we tend to forget them. These processes are called selective exposure, attention, perception, and recall (retention).  The human mind is very good at protecting itself from change.
5. Cultural training.  The tribesman above is probably more in tune with the seasons and migratory habits of the birds in his environment, because he gets his food from hunting them.  The city dweller may only see a source of noise and dirt in the birds around him.
6.  Expectations.  You see what you expect to see, what you tell yourself to look out for.  We are talking to ourselves here about what to perceive.
7.  The stimulus itself may have certain characteristics that cause the average perceiver to select them out.  Contrast from surrounding stimuli, either in size, intensity, or color, is one.
8.  External factors, such as competing noises, low lighting, etc.   

How perceptual differences affect communication.  Obviously, many of our communication problems and barriers come from perceptual differences.  Recognition is the first step; the next step is to see the perceptual differences as helps rather than hindrances, because you are getting a fuller picture of reality by taking into account other people’s perceptual experiences.  Humility is the third step.  The benefit of multiple perception and perspectives, especially in work teams, is remarkable.  A smart team leader or member will sit back and let others show how they are perceiving a problem or situation differently and not be threatened by the fact that his or her own perceptions are incomplete.
    On a practical level, “perception checking” is the process of stating your perceptions as perceptions and asking if it matches the other person’s.  A word like “seems” or “appears” comes in handy, as well as “I think” and “I feel” as opposed to stating perceptions and opinions as absolute truths.  (This is for oral communication; written communication generally avoids such deferential language.)  “You seem unsure that what we’re proposing is going to work; is that right?”  is an example.  Obviously, to do perception checking you need to listen and notice nonverbal signals. 
     Furthermore, it’s important to distinguish facts from judgments or opinions.  A statement can sound like a fact and still be an opinion.  “Forrest Gump is a movie about the empowerment of a mentally disabled person” sounds like a straightforward fact about the movie’s content, but it’s an opinion about its theme.  Another person could just as easily have the perception that the movie is making fun of the mentally disabled.  “Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his role in Forrest Gump,” is a factual statement.
        Mainly, and this is a theme throughout this lesson, watch out for self-serving biases and for your own sense of feeling threatened by differences.  Change and difference are stressful and difficult.  We want to be around people who are just like us; we may say we don’t, but if we were honest, we do.  We associate by choice with people who look like us, dress like us, make about the same amount of money we do, worship like us, drive the kind of vehicles we do, raise their children like we do, etc.  But there aren’t very many people in the world as a whole who are just like us.  The vast majority are not.  You decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.

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