Perception – Is it really what you think it is?

Not everything is what you think it is

Long time friends Michael and Richard met for their weekly catchup at the coffee shop where the atmosphere was always tranquil. For the first half hour they had enjoyed the relaxing time to catch up on what was happening in each other’s lives and share a few newly found insights.

Suddenly Michael’s facial expression changed to one of panic. As he reeled backward out of his chair Michael knocked the table off balance sending coffee cups and cutlery clattering to the floor as he fled through the open shop doors.

Within a few seconds the tranquil coffee shop turned into a frenzied panic zone with screaming people running in every direction – except for one person. With an intrigued smile on his face Richard watched the scenario unfold as the coffee shop cleared in what seemed like a split second.

The small house snake that had somehow found its way into the coffee shop was something that Richard had encountered many times in his own property. He knew enough about the reptile to know that it was of no danger to anyone.

Totally opposite to the fear induced perception of the snake that others in the coffee shop had, Richard’s perception was one of calm intrigue. He was more interested in what the snake was doing so far out of its natural habitat and how it had survived this far.

Richard calmly picked the snake up and walked out of the coffee shop. He excitedly began explaining to the crowd – who started screaming again – “that it was a harmless house snake and that he was going to put it take it back to an area where it would be safe.”

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Same thing … different perception

There are events and interactions around us every day where we all perceive what we see and experience in totally different ways to others. It could be in the home, at the office, in the mall in any public space. The question is, why there is such a large difference in how we all perceive the same scenario? Is this one of the key reasons why we misunderstand each other, have conflicts or react in seemingly irrational ways at times?

One of the answers can be found in the way we are influenced in our lives. Through our life experiences and conditioning through the many different influencing mediums, we build up courage, limitations, prejudices and fears. These all help create the mental frameworks we have and the pigeon-holes that we need to put everything into.

We cannot help ourselves – we just cannot resist placing everything into some sort of box or pigeon-hole so that we can make sense of it.

Uncertainty is one of our greatest fears and therefore anything we are not familiar with plays right into the hands of our greatest immobiliser. Like the snake in the coffee shop event, we will attempt to put these things we are unfamiliar with in a box, and if it resembles something similar to which we had a bad experience before, we will deem it a risk and avoid it – or run.

If a previous similar experience was neutral or pleasant, then we will not see it in a negative or defensive mode, but instead, as something that is worth doing or gravitating towards.

Assumptions – the mother of all….

When there are different perceptions of the same scenario then there is a breeding ground for assumptions. The great deception here is that you assume the other parties involved are seeing it the same way that you do. Recall the times you have had conflicts in relationships, with co-workers, with clients, service staff, bosses. How many of these have been due to assumptions and misaligned perceptions?

listen-talkAligned perceptions are one of the fundamental principles for good relationships, good communication, negotiation or even conflict resolution.

Because most people want their voices and opinions to be heard, very few listen for the all important alignment clues in what is being said.

Listening is the key to exploring the differences in expectations, perception and therefore the decisions people are going to make. Any good salesman or negotiator understands this key principle.

The other side of the coin is that poor communication, no matter how good the listening aspect is, is equally to blame for incorrect and misaligned perceptions. It is an equal ingredient in the assumption mix.

You cannot afford to assume to know how the other party sees something. Explore the other parties perceptions and expectations, then have them explore yours. Now open the discussions and negotiations.

Related topic: Expectation Rule 1


Manipulation through perception

Unexplored perceptions and expectations are how many people manipulate others. TRUST – THEN VERIFY. One of the best bits of wisdom I have come across is the one of trust-then verify. If you EXPLORE the different angles or perceptions, and establish the expectations upfront, then you vastly reduce falling into the trap that many use to gain your acceptance or alignment to them – for their own motives.

When you fail to explore, the other party interprets this as a signal that they can askew the reality of a situation and through this, establish expectations that seem favourable to you because they are confident that it’s validity is not going to be challenged.

When you question something, it has the same effect as and acid test. You are pricking it to see if it has holes in it. This is what lives at the foundation of trust-then verify.

Exploring perceptions is not something that you should perceive others will think is a display of your stupidity – it is in fact a display of your intelligence – use it! Establishing expectations is another intelligent way to avoid misunderstandings and assumptions.


“Perceptions and the Expectation Continuum”

Continuum graphic

As part of the Expectation Continuum (Expectations, Perceptions, Emotions, Decisions, Purpose), how do your perceptions feature in the mix?


When we look at the expectations that we have and the resulting outcomes, these outcomes start to form or change how we see things and interpret them.

If your expectation is that you will be held in high esteem and respected by your friends and colleagues, but you are constantly being belittled and brought down by them, your perception of any future friendships will be tainted towards the negative.

Your expectation will be that you are always going to be treated this way. This will influence your future decisions.


Your future choices and decisions around new friendships or trusting colleagues will probably cause you to avoid any new relationships because of your fear of rejection or being treated in a disrespectful way.

Your perception, and expectation of being hurt and betrayed now drives your decisions to avoid new relationships. Very often this is the reason people choose to foster relationships with the wrong people because it’s amongst the bad people that their expectation for acceptance and respect can be found.

Its not that these people are more embracing by nature, but because the acceptance is the manipulative method they use to draw you into helping them achieve their self-serving objectives.

Related: Using expectations to manipulate and deceive


Your Emotions are going to go through hell. There is very little that can compete with rejection and insignificance when it comes to dealing your emotions a heavy hammer blow. Whichever of the numerous emotions that you could experience (Frustration, anger, depression….) these emotions will impact on the way you see things, they will add insult to your injured expectations, and they will taint your current and future choices.

Putting it all together

rubik's assemblyTo help avoid flawed perceptions that can lead to flawed expectations, negative emotions and poor choices, you have to ensure that you look at a scenario from multiple angles.

You will need to ask questions about your perceptions by looking deeper at your existing expectations, emotions and decisions that you have made in the past to determine if they are possibly contributing to how you see things now.





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Steve Derek Vanstraaten is the author of The Power of Expectations, a look into the powerful forces at play in our lives that influence the course of who we are and what we do.

To see more, visit

The Power of Expectations book and resource workbooks will help you work through the elements that can possibly be working against you, or identify those elements that are working in your favour.

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