We all imagine we’re seeing the world accurately, says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson. But usually, that’s not correct. “There’s this saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’” she says. “That’s perfectly true. What we don’t realize is that everything is actually in the eye of the beholder.”
I recently caught up with her at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, where I was premiering my new book Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It, and she was launching No One Understands You and What to Do About It. Just as others don’t fully understand where we’re coming from, we also fall prey to erroneous assumptions and snap judgments. “The very first thing the brain does when it’s processing all this information about another person is to take as many shortcuts as possible,” she says. “The expression that’s used a lot in psychology is ‘we are cognitive misers.’” But if we want to see the world, and the people in it, more accurately, we need to overcome our biases. Here are two simple but powerful strategies for how to do it.
- Question your assumptions. As humans, we’re very biased by our first impressions of people, says Halvorson, a phenomenon known as the primary effect. “Our brains are very reluctant to change an impression once it’s formed,” she says. “Let’s say that you decided that your colleague is sort of rude and arrogant; that was their first impression they made on you. Then, the next day they do something that’s sort of nice, like they got you a cup of coffee or they took care of a problem for you. Instead of saying ‘Maybe I should revise my thinking that this person is so rude and arrogant,’ instead what we say is, ‘You know, they probably only did that because they want something from me.’ We find a way to think about a person’s behavior in a way that’s consistent with what we already believe.” If you push back against those initial assumptions, you may discover a new side to the person. Says Halvorson, “Open yourself up to the possibility that your first impression was wrong. If you do that very deliberately and consciously, then you can actually be much more open-minded and notice things that help you to revise that first impression.”
- Don’t let power go to your head. Psychological research shows that being powerful impedes your ability to see interpersonal dynamics correctly. “Whenever there’s someone that’s in a position of relative power,” says Halvorson, “some funny things happen to their brain…Powerful people have a tendency to not try as hard to understand the less powerful. You take some shortcuts and you’re more likely to use stereotypes to understand people that are in a less powerful position, and you’re more likely to get people wrong. I see that happening with leaders and managers, that there are things they’re simply missing because they tend to be a little bit more superficial in their understanding of the people that work for them. I think leaders need to take that extra effort to get to know the people that work for them and have a deeper understanding of who they are.”
People misunderstand you every day, and you misunderstand them right back. Unfortunately, those missed nuances can have serious repercussions for your business success. Following these strategies can help you see the world more accurately, and allow you to make better judgments and decisions.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.