Perception Is Reality!

07.07.12 | Posted in UnCommon Leadership

I recently had an exchange that was initiated face to face with a client and culminated 5 days later via email and phone call. In some of the workshops and leadership development work that I do, I use an original quotation of mine to help leaders better understand the power (and the challenge!) of perception. It reads, “My perception is my reality which may or may not be real.”  This exchange I’m about to describe to you is a classic demonstration of the perils that occur in our relational dynamics when our perceptions drive us and when those perceptions are based on my values and beliefs.

I had originally proposed a change in our contract to my client when I was onsite. I believed I had two choices of how to approach the client regarding a fee increase. First choice was to consider that my client didn’t like conflict and let that drive the discussion. The second choice was that I knew he liked to negotiate. I thought it through and chose option one; I believed that keeping our conversation from turning into a conflict was a more important driver than his need for negotiation. I presented the new fee structure in a manner that said I had thought it through and this is a fair price for the project. We could have come in at a higher price and then negotiate, but I wanted to give him a fair price that would eliminate any back and forth (read, conflict). We had some brief conversation, and his answer was, ”Let me think about it.” I’m pretty perceptive and usually can read people easily. In that exchange, I never picked up any clues that he was unhappy and that I had upset him.

Fast forward three days, and I get an email telling me that he did not appreciate my “take it or leave it” offer and that they hoped I wouldn’t be doing business like that with them again. From my perspective (perception!), I believe that I never once uttered the words “take or leave it.” I will bet you a large sum of money those words were never said. BUT, it doesn’t matter. What I said and how I said it was PERCEIVED as a “take it or leave it” ultimatum.  After reading the email, I called and left a very apologetic voice mail. A few minutes later, I received a call back, and we talked through the issue. This is where the exchange gets really interesting. This person has been a coaching client, and I’ve been working with their leadership team as well. He was proud of the fact that he didn’t “lash out” at me that very day (something we had been working on) and waited to send me an email. While I gave him kudos for that, I also gave him a new perspective which was dealing with conflict when it happens rather than letting it fester and boil, culminating in the email blast to me. He thought that he had handled my perceived ultimatum in a better manner than I did! Again, perspectives and perceptions colored this entire exchange.

Who was right and who was wrong in this exchange? If you believe that the customer is always right, then I am wrong.  I erred in judging how to approach something very critical. I made a relational dynamic error and misjudged the more important value my client had; that is, negotiations aren’t conflict, and he wants to be able to negotiate. Any offer where no other options are present is perceived as a take it or leave it offer!  Perceptions of conflict, negotiations, and the values and beliefs each of us brought into that situation caused it to go awry.

Have you had any relational exchanges like this lately where you believe that you’ve been “misunderstood”? We all do from time to time. The best option for the UnCommon Leader is to own the relationship and figure out what you can do to resolve the conflict. Blaming the other person for misunderstanding you will only add fuel to the fire! Recognize that another person’s values, beliefs, and perceptions may cause them to take something you have said or done and judge your motives and intentions completely wrong.

Onward & Upward!


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