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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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

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