Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 4;   January 27, 2010: What You See Isn't Always What You Get

What You See Isn't Always What You Get

by

We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
President Barack Obama with Stevie Wonder

President Barack Obama with Stevie Wonder at the White House. On Wednesday, February 25, 2009, President Obama presented Stevie Wonder with the Gershwin Award for Lifetime Achievement in a celebration in the East Room. One word comes to mind when looking at President Obama here: beaming. Yet, at other times, his demeanor has been called cool or aloof, and he has been criticized for not showing enough emotion or passion. President Obama, and most heads of state, are highly visible. Most of them learn to control the messages they send in their behavior, either by choosing their messages carefully, or limiting them altogether. President Obama uses a mixture of both techniques. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

When people say (or don't say) things, or do (or don't do) things, we make meaning out of what we observe. Our observations are inherently incomplete, because we don't know what's actually happening for other people. Usually, this ignorance does no harm. If we're wrong, the mistakes are often inconsequential, or clarification comes quickly enough to avert trouble.

But when we have strong reactions to our interpretations of others' behavior, we might easily hurt others or ourselves, because we tend to respond quickly. There's little time for clarification in advance, and even when clarification eventually arrives, we can be so wound up that we can't take it in.

Strong reactions indicate that it's time to slow down. Here are some insights about our interpretations and how they can be wrong.

People aren't WYSIWIG
Some text editor software is called "WYSIWYG," because What You See Is What You Get. Most people aren't WYSIWIG — what you see isn't always what you get. People don't usually reveal all of what's happening for them, and some rarely reveal any of what's happening for them.
Concealing feelings is a social skill
Have you not, at times, concealed your true feelings? We all can, and we all do, occasionally, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, in some situations, civility and politeness actually require that we conceal our feelings. And some people are so skillful at concealment that we have no idea how skillful they really are.
Styles and abilities differ
When people choose to conceal or dissemble, some adopt a cool, content-free affect that communicates very little. Others learn to communicate only the messages they choose to communicate, by carefully controlling voice tone, facial expressions and body language. People vary in their willingness and ability to present to the outer world something that differs from their inner world.
Concealment and dissembling are equally confusing
Some feel more comfortable concealing their feelings than they do feigning feelings they don't have. Some feel more comfortable
concealing their feelings
than they do feigning
feelings they don't have
To them, feigning feels less ethical, more like lying. But to observers, there is little difference. When someone's outsides don't match their insides, confusion reigns.
For some, concealing or dissembling is part of the job
People in highly visible positions must learn how to control the messages they send through their behavior. If they don't control those messages, the people around them gain important advantages. And since highly visible people have large numbers of people around them, yielding those advantages can interfere with their job performance. If they aren't — or don't become — skillful concealers or skillful dissemblers, their jobs are at risk.

Most important, we see what we choose to see and we choose interpretations we favor. Sometimes, that's OK, but both can be somewhat disconnected from the world. Interpret with care. Go to top Top  Next issue: Confronting the Workplace Bully: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogpuZSQjALOhsYlaner@ChackUAfbLCYkoofhKSToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A portion of the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th RegimentHow to Get Promoted in Place
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us do, judging by the number of Web pages that talk about promotions, getting promoted, or asking for promotions. What you do to get a promotion depends on what you're aiming for.
A bristlecone pine in the Great Basin National ParkExtrasensory Deception: II
In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman celebrating his eightieth birthdayPolitical Framing: Strategies
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
President George W. Bush and President Vladimir PutinI've Got Your Number, Pal
Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
RaspberriesHuman Limitations and Meeting Agendas
Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings more productive and save us from ourselves.

See also Workplace Politics and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A review meetingComing December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenwbUUMUfLnNsgTTmAner@ChacLkBQOtcPnqqiSGCWoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.