Each of us perceives from a perspective that is shaped by our physiology, culture, standpoint, social roles, cognitive abilities, and personal experiences. This means that what we perceive is always partial and subjective. In the streets of NYC, one will be hard pressed not to find a homeless person somewhere peeking from some cold doorstep. It is easy to ignore them and let this ‘they are lazy’ perceptions dictate our own behavior, which in most part would mean ignoring them as we walk by. Setting this perception aside, recognizing that all perceptions are partial and subjective, allowed me to share a cup of coffee while sitting on the sidewalk, offering not just a chance to meet a different face of humanity but also see the city from a different angle altogether.
A common occurrence in interpersonal communication is mind reading, which is assuming we understand what another person thinks, feels, or perceives. Taking the example from above, it is easy to assume what such a homeless person may think, feel or perceive, yet when we place our tendency to read such a mind (i.e. they feels worthless, dirty, poor, want to be ‘normal’, etc.), aside, we may be continuously surprised that this is not the case. Perception checking is an important communication skill because it helps people arrive at mutual understandings of each other and their relationship.
Interacting with the homeless population outside the official establishments is a unique opportunity to let someone know what you observe and have them clarify, what is most cases, are wrong assumptions. A rambling person on the street may not have psychological issues at all; it may be nothing but a self-serving mechanism to keep people at bay (away). Competent interpersonal communication also depends on distinguishing facts from inference. A fact is an objective statement based on observation. An inference involves an interpretation that goes beyond facts.
Is the fact that a person sleeps on a bench imply they are homeless? Is a person that rummages through garbage can hungry? No. The pure fact is, these actions mean nothing unless we assign meaning to them based on our own perception of what SHOULD be occurring. Only homeless people sleep on the bench and only hungry people rummage through garbage cans .. or is but what society taught us? Self-serving bias can distort perceptions; it also inclines us to notice what we do and to be less aware of what others do.
I am of course the only one that is perfect and knows everything. If I elect to place my self-serving bias aside, I actually recognize that I am not the end all to be all. There are people out there who are better at anything I may do, from writing to communicating in person, from cooking to dealing with a client’s psychological issues .. and the list goes on. A fundamental attribution error occurs when we overestimate the internal causes and underestimate external causes for undesirable behavior from others and when we underestimate the internal causes and overestimate the external causes for our own failing or bad behaviors (that was a mouth full)
This is highly evident on the highway. I despise ill-mannered drivers and in the past, I have assumed they are but on the road to harass us law-abiding persons, eventually becoming one of them, with the ‘if they can, I can’. Of course, along the way, I took the time and evaluated my thought process and realized, it could be an emergency they are trying to get to .. or who knows .. some other propelling reason why they would not show they manners and changed my own moronic behavior.
Once we label our perceptions, we may respond to our own labels rather than to actual phenomena. I label my husband based on my perception; I perceive him to be sexy, handsome, smart, grounded in reality and a host of so many other positive things. Reality may have actually nothing to do with this since I am certain there are sexier, more handsome, smarter men out there. In turn though, our interaction is that of utter delight and we have never had negativity in our marriage as a result.
In summary, one of the significant things we have to keep in mind when we interact with others is that we have to watch our labeling process while at the same time continuing to be proud of the way we communicate.