I’ve heard it expressed many ways in many contexts: How others see you isn’t as important as how you perceive yourself.
“My damn boss,” a friend grumbles. “He snarls every time I try to ask a question. But I know exactly what I’m worth.”
“I don’t think anyone likes me,” the child says.
Unguarded, and not yet schooled in deflecting negative feedback from others, the child’s dismay is instructive.
The child turns to his parent for greater understanding, and likely looking to change something about himself.
Why Is It Important How Others Perceive You?
I’m in favor of nurturing our self-esteem. I’m in favor of developing a thick enough skin to protect ourselves from cruel comments. But I have concerns over dismissing the opinions of others outright, or more specifically, the perceptions they may have of us that we are better served acknowledging – and learning from.
Without feedback from others, how can we understand why we do or don’t get the guy, win the deal, or convince the kid? How can we comprehend why certain individuals react to us the way they do? Aren’t their responses based not only on our actions, but on our words, our gestures, even our overall appearance?
Going far beyond first impressions, people judge relying on all of these elements, ascribing more positive attributes when our perceptions are positive and appropriate. Don’t we have more faith in the calm, confident decision-maker, especially if he or she is surrounded by chaos?
In the examples above, if the woman with little online success never considers how she comes across in her profile or emails, is she missing the boat? What if the friend who snarls about her boss also snarls at her boss? Wouldn’t they both do better to know – and adjust, accordingly?
See Yourself as Others See You, From the Outside In
In its most recent “Corner Office,” The New York Times interviews Sharon Sloane, CEO of an unusual interactive training video company, Will Interactive, which
allow[s] users to walk in other people’s shoes, see themselves as others see them… [and] practice decision making and experience the real life consequences—all in the safety of cyberspace.
It seems like a fascinating (and powerful) exercise with many applications, which may explain why Ms. Sloane’s message in The Times interview stuck:
… you have to take yourself out of the situation and look at it as if you’re viewing other people playing your role. You have to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes and really empathize with them. But it’s also just as important to see yourself as others see you… it gives you a framework.
Perceptions of Others: Necessary to Self-Improvement
How often – in our work lives, our parenting, our relationships, our friendships – do we stop to imagine how the other person who is seeing us? And I’m not restricting this to what they think of what we say. I’m guessing the answer is – not often.
Do we ever consider what we are projecting with a shrill voice, a furrowed brow, a blistering choice of words, or a choice of language that is too soft? Isn’t it true that how others see us influences how they act?
If we could see ourselves as they see us, what would we do differently? How might we modify our silence, our anger, our diffidence, our confusion, our seemingly disproportionate frustration, not to mention the words we use? If we can imagine how a spouse, a child, or a co-worker is experiencing us, aren’t we more likely to resolve issues more effectively? To succeed at our goals more quickly?
Overthinking What Others Think
I used to worry excessively about how others saw me, and the picture wasn’t pretty. I was caught in the shadow of poor self-esteem for years, and was especially critical of my appearance. I was convinced I was never thin enough, pretty enough, or for that matter, tall enough!
That is the flip side – the destructive underbelly – of imagining how others see us. We may be confused about their response to us – because we’re carrying old baggage from childhood or, we’re completely ignorant of how we’re coming across.
One of the lovely aspects of “maturing” is gaining perspective and confidence. We arrive at the brilliant conclusion that we are neither the best person / partner / performer / parent / boss / friend on the planet, nor the worst. Yet we may still be unable to conceive of how others experience us. Do we seem distant? Hot-headed? Over-eager? Overbearing?
Information and Empathy Go a Long Way
While Ms. Sloane’s remarks are featured in the context of leadership, they offer broad applicability.
We know that if we can put ourselves in a partner’s shoes or a child’s shoes, we may see fit to provide greater explanation, to moderate our tone of voice, or to shut up – if that’s what the situation calls for.
If we’re embarking on a new job and we sense that a team member feels uncomfortable with our arrival, we would be wise to find out why, and imagine how we would feel in her place, followed by modifying our behavior (even slightly), if appropriate.
If we are involved in a complex project, we are well advised to keep in mind that none of us may have the big picture, those “at the top” may be bombarded with details they don’t need, and to the extent that we can put ourselves in their shoes, we’re that much more able to adjust behavior and communications.
This isn’t just empathy; it’s efficiency.
The Video (or Mirror) Exercise
Ms. Sloane’s company is all about interactive videos in which the participant becomes the actor in her own decision-making story. From there, behavior modification (for improvement) is facilitated. Great idea, isn’t it?
Don’t we do this, simplistically of course, when we’re practicing for a job interview – sitting across a spouse or a friend? Can’t we do this with a webcam, trying out the best way to tackle a tough subject with a teenager, adopting a more conciliatory tone or a less furious face?
Isn’t this a version of “practicing in the mirror” – which so many of us did as children, whether how to talk to the opposite sex, telling off the school bully, or imagining we’re accepting an academy award? In our selfie-obsessed society, can’t we do this today – for the benefit of improving our communications and our confidence?
When I was still early in my career, I used a bulky camcorder at a makeshift desk to film myself giving a presentation – until I was comfortable that I came across as desired: expert in my field, but approachable. Even then I understood that body language is a vital part of effective communication, and that stepping outside our own view is essential, personally and professionally.
How others see us – matters.
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