We all know that our reality is not shared by everyone and that our beliefs and perspectives differ based on background, education, culture, and experiences. Although we all have the same egalitarian goal – we consider ourselves to be fair and unbiased people, our perception of ourselves and other people is highly distorted.
No One Understands You and What to Do About It, by Heidi Grant Halvorson, is a book affirming this idea.
According to Halvorson, our interpretations of people and events are embarrassingly inaccurate due to many of the following:
- Confirmation bias: interpreting evidence only in terms of what confirms your preexisting beliefs and values.
- Conservative bias: being risk averse and overly cautious; seeing the world through a prevention-minded filter.
- False-uniqueness bias: the tendency to believe that we have better values and are generally more honest, kind, and capable than other people.
- False-consensus bias: the tendency to overestimate the extent to which our beliefs or opinions are shared by others.
- Correspondence bias: drawing inferences about a person based on actions alone.
The premise of Halvorson’s book is that we constantly misinterpret and are misinterpreted, and we are none the wiser. This lack of clear communication can be an impediment in both personal and work relationships, and can spawn misunderstandings, stress, and difficulty between unsuspecting parties.
Not only can we not fully understand another person’s thinking or intentions; we sometimes can’t even understand our own thinking! Halvorson describes a two phase perception process:
- Phase 1: our instinctive reaction to someone. Comes as automatic, relatively effortless, and almost completely out of our awareness or control.
- Phase 2: the corrective phase, which looks for mistakes or bias in our initial perception. Requires mental energy and increased awareness.
Although Phase 2 may help to clean up any biases existing in Phase 1, the problem exists when we never enter Phase 2. If we never take into account contexts, environment, or errors in our own judgment, we may take action on false information without even knowing it, potentially severing relationships, opportunities, or causing unnecessary conflicts.
For example, if we read an essay by a student supporting Fidel Castro’s political policies, we are inclined to believe the student author supports Castro. However, once we learn that his assignment required him to support Castro regardless of his personal opinion, we change our conclusion about the student’s beliefs, right? Not exactly. Most of us would still be inclined to believe the student’s writing – whether it was forced or genuine – displays his personal beliefs and will therefore draw conclusions about him based on that misinformation. We have failed to enter Phase 2 of our analysis.
What I found particularly interesting was Halvorson’s ideas on how we assess other people. To put it simply, we measure people based on their warmth and competence. Warmth would be their personality and attitude – are they kind, sincere, empathetic, and friendly? Do they smile, pay attention, show sincerity and trust? Or are they distrustful, curt, avoidant, and impersonal? In terms of competence, we equate people with discipline, will power, skills, security, and experience with competence.
The key is to have a balance of warmth and competence. Act overly competent and you may seem unapproachable, intimidating, shrewd, or overconfident. Be too warm and you seem weak, incompetent, naive, soft, or unassertive. Instead, demonstrate warm behaviors that do not evoke low competence – courage, fairness, responsibility, honesty, loyalty. Of course, smiling, eye contact, and strong body language can signify both warmth and competence.
Side note: this idea is the premise of the book Compelling People, by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. This will give you a better idea of how to be more effective in interviews.
Next, Halvorson discusses the influence of power in a person’s perception. Powerful people tend to take more mental shortcuts, stereotype more, and pay less attention to powerless people because they have bigger concerns on their minds and limited time and cognition. The most important takeaway for those looking to become more influential and well-connected is to get the attention of a powerful person, show how you can help them achieve their goals.
“[It’s not] about being nice – it’s about being useful.” (Halvorson, pg. 99).
Don’t walk up to them and start listing your skills and qualities, and don’t try to flatter them by saying how much you admire them. They don’t care about that. As Halvorson says, it’s the goals that matter. Know what their goals are and show how they align with yours. Most importantly, show how you can be instrumental in reaching their goals.
Side note: this idea is key in interviewing as well. Don’t just list off twenty accomplishments and past experiences. Make them relevant to the company’s goals, vision, and needs. Understand your customer and speak in their terms, not in some generic, untailored format, or else you won’t get anyone’s attention.
It’s also important that I touch on the Ego Lens, which is our mental function that serves to protect and enhance our self-esteem. It does this in a variety of ways:
- Downward social comparison: comparing yourself to those worse off than you in order to feel superior
- Belittling others and their accomplishments
- Associating yourself with someone else so that their accomplishment feels like yours as well
The two factors that determine if we are threatened or enhanced by someone else’s achievements are relevance and closeness. Relevance has to do with how much the other person’s achievement relates to our own personal goals and interests, and if it in any way threatens or lessens our own successes. Closeness is based on how involved the person is in our lives – if they are family, friends, or close competitors.
In order to reduce the threat to our ego, we choose to reduce relevance or closeness. In siblings, if one is majorly successful in one area, say sports, the other may choose to pursue another field, such as music, so as to not be in a constant struggle with their sibling’s ego. In this case, they reduce relevance and maintain closeness.
Alternately, if we cannot reduce relevance, then we choose to reduce closeness through avoidance. We may break off a relationship with the person, whether it be a sibling, friend, or lover.
The key to assuaging this unending battle of egos is to act with modesty and affirmation toward other people. Don’t flaunt your accomplishments and praise them for the good traits you sincerely recognize and appreciate. You may even use language to suggest that you’re on the same team or group, to show that your success is their success.
Another way that we can be biased is more ingrained in our personalities, and comes down to whether we see the world through a promotion lens or prevention lens. The former will be more keen to take risks, jump at opportunities, and pursue adventure. Examples include Richard Branson, Donald Trump, and most entrepreneurs and creative types. The latter is more thorough, detail-oriented, slow and cautious, and is more likely to be an engineer, accountant, or administrator. Neither is better than the other and both have innate strengths and weaknesses that may predispose them to certain careers and paths in life.
Lastly, we discuss three different personality types: anxious, avoidant, and secure. These are largely a product of your childhood relationship with your parents, though other environmental factors may play a role. To put it succinctly:
- The anxious lens: tend to be needly, clingy, and rejection sensitive. Perhaps a result of having a caregiver whose responses were loving but not consistent or reliable. See rejection everywhere mainly because they’re so afraid of it and want to keep it from happening again.
- The avoidant lens: typically want little to do with their caretakers. They have a detached, self-reliant point of view. May be a result of having parents who were unresponsive or dismissive to the child’s needs for support and love. Reluctant to give support, partly because they don’t know how having not received much of it themselves. They have learned not to count on others for support; may show support due to a feeling of obligation rather than desire.
- The secure lens: self-explanatory. Stable emotional conditions and builds relationships easily. A product of parents who were responsive to the child’s needs.
These ideas directly correspond to the premise of the book Attached, by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller.
It’s important to identify your personality style because by finding where you fit in, you can better understand your tendencies and interactions with other people. By bringing these ideas to a conscious level, you can work on improving them and also become better at communicating and getting along with others.
- Learn to recognize cognitive biases that distort our perception of ourselves and other people
- Have a balance of warmth and competence in order to build stronger relationships and gain more influence and respect
- To get the attention of someone important, show how you can help them reach their goals rather than flattering them or brandishing your qualifications
- Recognize your Ego Lens and personal defense mechanisms; learn to deal with other people’s ego
- Identify where you fit on the spectrum of anxious, avoidant, and secure in order to improve your social skills and influence
***To learn more about how to be a better communicator and how to communicate more effectively, check out No One Understands You and What To Do About It, by Heidi Grant Halvorson.***
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