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It’s long been said that “perception is reality,” and on its face, this saying seems to hold truth. But we believe it can more accurately be stated that reality is perception. Why the distinction? Each of us has a reality that is wholly unique to us and is formed by our perception of the events that occur in our lives, from dinner table conversations to work meetings and interactions with complete strangers. In fact, the inception of The Birkman Method began when Dr. Roger Birkman noted during World War II that members of his flight crew each had a different reality of what occurred during the mission they were on together, and experienced together. Each person’s reality was created through the filter of their individual perceptions

Our experiences, and thus our reality, are shaped by the filter we see the world through: our perception. We will never see the world except through the filter we are wearing, and though we often find comfort in our “truths,” this comfort can create a trap of certainty from which it can be difficult to escape. So why should we be inspired to break free of the perception prison?

Our Truth is Not the Truth

Because of the perpetual filter we wear, we assume others have the same perception and approach to life as we do. We might think, “This is how it should be done,” or “This idea can really only be interpreted one way.” Our perception feels like an absolute truth due to the confirmation bias that makes us look for things we believe to be true. We look for the “truth” that supports what we believe rather than looking for a truth outside of what we believe. But we do not perceive an absolute truth. We are experiencing our own unique truth, the reality created by our individual perceptions. Openness to other perspectives can help us grow mentally and increase our emotional intelligence, but not until we accept the possibility that realities other than our own may have validity. For instance, a person who prefers a very loose structure in the workplace–flexible rules, shifting deadlines, and dynamic processes–might see no value in documenting how a particular task should be completed. They might feel their best work can only be done with the fewest constraints. But what about the view that “best work” means the work that is the most consistent and can be repeated for the same results? Neither view is absolutely true or absolutely false, and it can be compromising between differing perceptions that truly produces the best work. 

Our Perception is Limiting

The same confirmation bias that seeks out reality aligned with our truth tends to create a natural bias against people whose perception is different than ours–those who have different truths. We tend to not surround ourselves with people who are different than us because it makes us uncomfortable, requiring that we stretch in ways we don’t always want to. An unspoken need of most humans is to place themselves in situations that minimize stress and emotional or mental conflict, so why would we willingly go outside of our comfort zone? It turns out there’s a pretty good reason to consider. Viewing the world through our limiting perception is like shining a flashlight in the dark and believing the whole world contains only the tree right in front of us. But when morning comes, and the sun rays of differing perspectives begin to rise, we find out that the tree is just one part of a beautiful forest. In other words, staying in our own filtered world means we don’t see the forest for the tree.

Our Perception Gives Us a False Sense of Reality

By living in our own perception prison, this gives us the illusion we hold absolute truths–but the reality we create can only be described as false. This is not to say that everything we believe is false, but that when we lock ourselves into a reality formed by just one perspective, it’s easier for us to deny that other perspectives might be valid. Applying this to something as simple as the perception of a color’s hue or as complex as a philosophical concept will quickly expose our false reality. For example, respect is a very subjective concept that does not mean the same thing to all people. Some interpret respect as the presence of candor and straightforwardness from others, as they see this approach as the most truthful. Others feel most respected when people choose their words carefully because this demonstrates more thoughtfulness than speaking without a filter. When dealing with complex and nuanced concepts that can quickly lead to conflict when different perspectives are not recognized, it’s best to ask a clarifying question such as, “What does respect look like to you?” Doing this provides the framework we need to have the most trusting interactions with our team and helps avoid conflict stemming from differing perceptions.

How Do We Escape the Perception Prison?

When we realize that our perception is just ours and that we only see a very limited reality, we can begin to accept that there are other viewpoints and start to take off the bars of the perception prison. It all comes down to training ourselves to remove assumptions about the “right” way to do things and leaving behind the concept of “absolute truth.” Appreciating diversity of thought and personality in a team setting means better ideas, reduced conflict, enhanced outcomes, and better engagement. While we may never be able to completely remove ourselves from the prison, we can make choices that make it feel less limiting. To do this, we must first be aware that we are looking through the bars of our cell and be willing to ask for the key to unlock it.

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