Perception checking refers to finding out if your perception of someone’s behavior is accurate.
It is an essential skill in effective communication in both professional and personal contexts because it can help clear-up miscommunication and misunderstandings that arise due to humans’ natural selective perception tendencies.
People are not always the best communicators of their thoughts and feelings. A person might seem to be saying one thing, but really, they mean something else.
Therefore, it can also help avoid conflicts. By gaining an accurate understanding of what someone wants to say, it can reduce the likelihood of offending someone, or, being offended.
Types of Perception Checking
According to Floyd (2011),
“perception checking is the process of testing your perceptions for accuracy” (p. 154).
There are two types of perception checking: direct and indirect.
Direct perception checking simply involves asking the person you’re speaking with if your understanding is correct.
This method involves three steps:
- Description: Describing the behavior observed.
- Interpretation: Provide two possible interpretations.
- Clarification: Asking if your interpretation is correct.
Indirect perception checking involves seeking additional information about the person’s behavior by observing their facial expressions or how they act towards others.
Perception Checking Examples
- When in a Relationship: “You are being really quiet tonight. Did I do something wrong or did you have a bad day? Just let me know what’s wrong.”
- In a Meeting: “I’m not sure if I understand what you are saying. Are you for or against the project? Please help me get a clear picture.”
- Not Hearing from Someone: “You usually call every day, but I haven’t heard from you in almost a week. Did something happen or did you go out of town? Give me a ring so I won’t worry.”
- After a Tense Encounter: “It seems like you ended our conversation abruptly. Did I say something to offend you or were you just in a hurry? I’d like to know what happened.”
- Following-up about a Promised Raise: “I remember during my performance evaluation a raise was mentioned, but it hasn’t happened yet. So, I was wondering if I misunderstood or if maybe HR has not completed the paperwork yet. If you could let me know what to expect, that would be great.”
- With a Spouse: “I noticed that you didn’t eat much at dinner tonight so I’m not sure if I cooked something you don’t like or if you were just not hungry. Let me know so I don’t make the same mistake next time.”
- Getting Started on a Project: “It seems that when I try to arrange a time for us to get started on the project, you have a reason to not set a time. So, I am wondering if you don’t want to be partners on this project or if you have too much other work to do. Can you help me understand what’s happening?”
- With the Boss: “You say you’re happy with the report but your tone sounds different. So, I’m not sure if the report is all wrong or if something else is on your mind. Either way, just give me a little clarification please.”
- Getting the Cold Shoulder: “The last three times I saw you out it seems that you didn’t notice me. Have I done something to offend you or did you really not see me? I’d like to know.”
- The New Neighbor: “We were disappointed not to see you and your wife at our BBQ last weekend. Did you not think you were invited or have other plans? If we change the time for the next one will that help? “
- Being Friendly or Flirting: “At the party last night you seemed to spend a lot of time talking to Fred. Were you talking about work or do you have some romantic interest in him? I just think its best to be clear about where we stand.”
- No Reply to an Email: “I sent you an email last week asking about the project but didn’t get a reply. Have you been too busy to reply yet or did it go to your spam folder by accident? I can send it again if you need, just let me know.”
- At the end of a Job Interview: “Okay, when you say you’ll get back to me, does that me that I have a good chance to get the position or are you just being polite? I don’t mind a direct answer, I’d just like to know.”
- Checking the Phone During a Conversation: “Oh, I notice that you are checking your phone a lot, are you expecting an important message from work or worried about missing a phone call? What’s going on?”
- Leaving the House without saying Goodbye: “You left this morning without saying anything. Were you in a hurry or did you forget that you have a wife? I’d like to know what happened.”
- After an Awkward Silence: “During our chat today, there were quite a few long pauses. I’m wondering if you were just lost in thought or if you felt uncomfortable with the conversation? I want to make sure we’re both at ease.”
- When a Friend Cancels Plans: “You’ve cancelled our last two meet-ups pretty last minute. Is it because you’re going through a busy phase right now or have I done something that’s bothering you? Just want to make sure everything’s okay.”
- In a Group Project: “I’ve noticed that you haven’t contributed much to our group discussions or tasks. Are you finding the project uninteresting or are you just not sure how to get involved? Your input would be really valuable.”
- During a Family Gathering: “At dinner, you seemed to avoid any conversation about your new job. Is it because you’re not happy there or do you just prefer keeping work and family separate? I’m just curious to know how you’re doing.”
- Receiving a Vague Response: “When I asked about your weekend, you just said it was ‘fine’ but seemed a bit down. Did something happen that you’d like to talk about or was it just a regular weekend? I’m here if you need to share anything.”
Case Studies of Perception Checking
1. Contextual Clues and Perception
It is easy to misinterpret another person’s behavior or personality. The context in which the person is viewed can have a big impact on the accuracy of our perceptions.
For example, noticing that someone is fidgeting a lot can be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on if they are in a doctor’s waiting room, outside the boss’s office, or at a social gathering; same behavior, different context.
To examine how context can impact accuracy of perception, Gosling et al. (2002) asked research participants to make judgments regarding a person’s personality based on their office (Study 1) or bedroom (Study 2).
Those perceptions were then compared with self-ratings and peer-ratings of those individuals.
The researchers then calculated a correlation between participants’ perceptions and the self and peer ratings of the individuals. The results revealed that “accuracy correlations in the study of bedrooms (Study 2) were consistently stronger than those in the study of offices (Study 1)” (p. 393).
The researchers explain that in some contexts, such as a social gathering or personal dwelling space, people can be more self-expressive, which makes aspects of their personality more visible.
In these situations, perception may actually be more accurate.
2. Cross-Cultural Influences
Communication styles can vary across cultures. When working in a foreign country this can be a serious issue if not handled well. Misunderstandings can lead to harsh feelings and conflict that are completely unnecessary.
For example, North Americans have the habit of greeting coworkers in the morning with a friendly “hello.” It is a way of acknowledging a person’s presence and is just part of the culture.
However, in some other countries, this is not the custom at all. When people enter the office, they go straight to their desk and get to work. It’s simply not customary to look up from one’s desk and say “good morning” to others as they arrive.
If someone from North America is not aware of this cultural difference, then they may interpret the lack of greeting as rudeness or someone being cold and indifferent.
In a situation like this, one could try perception-checking, but that might be misunderstood by the other person. It can be seen as being too personal or a sign of a fragile personality.
Sometimes, it’s best to let it go and don’t overanalyze the situation.
See Also: Cultural Influence Examples
3. Self-Reflection and Perceptions
Each person enters an interpersonal encounter with at least one or two biases. These biases are hard to overcome and can affect even those of us that try really hard to be unbiased.
The first step to overcoming this implicit bias is to be self-aware. knowing what biases you have and how they can affect your interpretations of others is essential.
Our perceptions can be skewed by many factors, including our mood, cultural biases, expectations regarding a person’s economic or social class, geographic upbringing, religious beliefs, and the list goes on and on.
To go with just one example, when in a negative mood, we have a tendency to interpret the behavior of others has having a negative meaning. This can lead to misinterpreting their tone of voice, misidentifying a facial expression, or just completely applying a different meaning to what they said.
Being self-reflective and knowing your own tendencies and current state of mind can go a long way to more accurate perception.
See Also: Self-Reflection Examples
4. Stereotypes: Even Positive Ones
There seems to be a stereotype for just about category of human on the planet. These stereotypes are often perpetuated by television shows that depict certain groups of people in very particular ways.
For example, if meeting a professional athlete for the first time, we may have a preformed notion about their personality type, habits, and values.
Even stereotypes that we think might be positive, are still stereotypes. And, they can still sometimes be offensive. For instance, Asians are stereotyped as being good at math and knowing martial arts.
Even though those may seem like good qualities to have, many Asian people feel offended by being typecast. A lot of people would like to be seen as individuals, unique and special. Being placed in a group is a way of denying their self-identity.
5. Perception Checking and Emotional Intelligence
Ever since Daniel Goleman came out with his book on emotional intelligence (discussed here), the world has been obsessed with finding ways to improve it. From kindergarten classrooms to corporate training programs, there is no shortage of advice on how to become better at understanding others and ourselves.
The term emotional intelligence, originally coined by Salovey and Mayer in 1990, has been developed into a model which contains several components, including one labeled as Emotional Perception and Expression (Salovey et al., 2002).
This component includes “a person’s capacity to perceive and express their feelings…from both a verbal and non-verbal form.” Including “the ability to interpret emotional messages articulated through facial expressions and tone of voice” (Tarasuik et al, 2009, p. 4).
Although a person with a high EQ may be accurate at interpreting the emotions and behaviors of others, they may also understand the importance of not being wrong.
Choosing the right tone of voice and words are extremely important when perception checking. People can become easily offended if they feel that their sincerity is being doubted.
Perception checking is a way to test the accuracy of our interpretation of a person’s behavior and gain clarity.
There are three basic steps that entail describing the person’s actions, offering two possible explanations, and then asking for help in understanding.
Perception checking can be useful in a variety of situations. With colleagues, it can help make coworker relations function more smoothly and help create a positive work environment.
With friends and romantic partners, it can help diffuse potentially volatile situations and avoid unnecessary conflict.
Being aware of one’s own cultural biases and stereotypes can help prevent the need for perception checking in the first place. At the same time, context can influence our perceptions, sometimes actually leading to greater accuracy.
Although perception checking seems harmless and the goal innocent enough, in some cultures it may be seen as a sign of weakness.
Floyd, K. (2011). Interpersonal communication. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. Learning, 24(6), 49-50.
Gosling, Samuel & Ko, Sei & Mannarelli, Thomas & Morris, Margaret. (2002). A room with a cue: Personality judgments based on offices and bedrooms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(3), 379-98. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.119
Faheem, S. & Aparna, P. (2014). Interpersonal communication skills in academic and scholastic perspective: Barriers and solutions. International Journal of Humanities, Arts, Medicine and Sciences, 2(12), 63-72.
Hansen, F. C. B., Resnick, H., & Galea, J. (2002). Better listening: Paraphrasing and perception checking–a study of the effectiveness of a multimedia skills training program. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 20(3-4), 317-331. doi: https://doi.org/10.1300/J017v20n03_07
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211.
Salovey, P., Mayer, J. D., & Caruso, D. (2002). The Positive Psychology of Emotional Intelligence. In Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 159-171). London: Oxford University Press.
Shanthi, D. (2014). Cross cultural communication: Its relevance and challenges in organizations. International Journal of Research and Development-A Management Review, 1(1), 49-51.
Tarasuik, J. C., Ciorciari, J., & Stough, C. (2009). Understanding the neurobiology of emotional intelligence: A review. Assessing emotional intelligence: Theory, research, and applications, 307-320. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-88370-0_16