“What just happened?” I delivered a performance review to Charlie that was quite positive! I told him he was doing a great job in all his responsibilities. He’s been a leader among his peers and I thanked him for a job well done. I even awarded him a raise that was more than most people in the company. But Jackie reported that Charlie had been sulking around the shop floor, then he slammed a tool down on the workbench and stormed off and left the building. So I found Charlie to ask what the problem was. He said, “I’m so disappointed in my review. I’ve been working so hard to be a positive influence and my review just didn’t go well.” What in the world happened?
A friend recently told me a story quite similar to the one above. My thought was, “Yeah. We all have experiences like that. Sometimes we’re the boss. Sometimes we’re Charlie.” In either case, there is a large gap between how two people experienced the same event. This is because there is a very complex cognitive process going on that we fail to recognize. If we were more conscious of what’s going on in our heads and hearts, we might manage the process better and have fewer gaps in our communication and interaction.
What is that cognitive process? It involves four steps:
Let’s unpack each.
Your senses absorb information from your surroundings. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Touch and temperature. Taste.
The amount of information that your brain processes every second of the day is actually quite astounding. (I’ve heard a variety of claims about how much that would be in gigabytes or terabytes of information per day, but I don’t think we have a reliable method of measuring it.) Ironically, one of the remarkable things about this process of taking in and analyzing stimuli is that healthy people effectively filter out situationally extraneous details. What gets filtered out is actually most of the available information.
The information that remains is run through the remaining three steps in this process.
Perception is a tricky thing. It’s like having high quality lenses on a camera that are properly focused. Or, it could be said that it’s like having radar with the right amount of power and the right antenna size. Perception is also a skill. The photographer or radar operator must know how to use the equipment properly.
Are you skilled at using your tools of perception?
All of the information that your brain collects is processed through your own mental constructs of beliefs and values.
Your beliefs and values are shaped both passively and actively. They are shaped passively through your experiences, through your family structure (how you were raised as a child), and through your culture and other environmental factors.
Beliefs and values can also be shaped actively. You might choose to learn about and adopt certain beliefs and then value them in your thinking, words, and actions. This is the process that anyone goes through in following a faith tradition.
Assumptions are extremely variable across people, even people in the same family, work, or social setting.
The tricky thing about this is that we usually aren’t aware of how our assumptions influence perception. We are especially unaware of others’ assumptions. Like perception, it is mostly an automatic process. It takes considerable effort and training to consciously adjust perception and assumption.
Are you aware of the assumptions you make?
Once your brain has collected data and filtered it through your assumptions, you then interpret what it means. You begin to apply it to your situation.
Interpretation is the tipping point between internal and external expression of our world. Up until this point in the process, everything has been in your head and in your heart. Interpretation is still an internal, cognitive function but it is the nearest driver of what happens next.
This is where you decide. You decide whether something is good or bad. You decide whether it helps or doesn’t. You decide whether he can or can’t. You decide whether to go Friday or Tuesday. You decide how much or how little.
You make an uncountable number of interpretation decisions every day.
Are your interpretations effective? Why or why not? Have you examined the perceptions and assumptions that lead to your interpretations?
Once your interpretation is made, in one way or another you communicate.
Action and inaction.
They are all forms of communication. Every interpretation decision you make is eventually communicated in one way or another.
What are you communicating? Are you communicating the right message? Do you know what message you’re communicating?
Important Closing Thought
Look back on the past hour of your day. Think about all of the communicating you did—not just words, the non-verbals, too. It’s entirely possible that at some points you said to yourself, “What’s the message I want to get across here and how do I effectively do so?” That’s great, but that accounts for only a tiny fraction of your total communication in any given day. Most of us are highly unintentional in our communication.
Now, think about all of the perception, assumption, and interpretation that preceded all of your communication. How conscious were you of that?
Just like me, I’m sure your answer is, “Well, not at all really.”
Communication is essentially our interface with the world around us. Shouldn’t we be investing more into developing skilled perception, developing healthy assumption filters, and creating accurate interpretations?
If you did that, would your communication improve? Would your interaction with your world be more effective and satisfying?
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
The cognitive and communication process described here is loosely based on the work of John Nance as explained to me by a speaker at a conference in March, 2016. I have made efforts to uncover Nance’s work on these ideas for proper attribution. As of this writing I have been unable to do so.