Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Recovering from False Perceptions

Dear Emily,

I have found that participants in long-term relationships tend to keep score in their emotional bank accounts. Over time we may build up a mental image of the other person—often a fictitious persona which is heavily weighted toward the things that bug us most about him or her. The perception of the other person can become worse and worse over time as we interpret our present actions in terms of the fictitious persona. Two questions: a. Suppose you realize that your spouse is not the fictitious persona. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure that crucial conversation? b. Suppose this sort of thing happens at work. Is it possible to repair the damage? If so, how do you structure the crucial conversation?

Wanting to Repair the Damage

Dear Wanting,

To converse or not to converse? That is the question. Or is it? Asking, “How should I structure the conversation?” presupposes that you should have a conversation. I am not sure you should.

Not have a conversation?! I know. It seems like blasphemy. I have spent the last ten years teaching thousands of people how to hold a crucial conversation. During that time, I have watched people move through a fairly predictable process. It looks something like this:

“For years and years, I have suffered in silence. I have failed to speak up because I do not have the skills to do so. Whenever I have spoken up, it has backfired, causing me untold heartache. I have realized that staying silent rarely brings me negative consequences, or at least I don’t see those consequences directly.

“Then, I attend a Crucial Conversations class and I am reborn! I understand the choice I am making when I stay silent and I commit to leaving silence behind. With my newfound skills, I sally forth into the great wide world, holding conversations that have been pent up for years. It is invigorating. I talk, and talk, and talk.

“Then comes the day when I hold a crucial conversation using all my best skills and it doesn’t work. I don’t feel freed and empowered afterward; I feel small. What has happened? Have I lost my voice?”

Of course, the answer is no. You haven’t lost your voice or your skills. You may have just lost your bearings a bit. You see, not all conversations need to be held, not all topics need to be addressed.

When deciding whether or not to hold a conversation, I would suggest you get really clear on why you are holding it before you even consider how to hold it.

So let’s take a look at your conversation and figure out why you are considering holding the conversation. You have come to the stark realization that you have misjudged someone, creating a fictitious persona that amplifies their negative attributes and ignores (we can suppose) their positive ones. Now you want to talk to that person about it. Why?

Reasons to Hold the Conversation

High on the list of reasons to hold a conversation is because you need to apologize. Because of your perception, you have treated the other person poorly. That definitely deserves an apology. Your apology should focus on the ways in which you have behaved poorly, acknowledge the pain that may have caused, include a sincere commitment to change, and a humble request for grace. Notice what is not on the list? A long discussion of why you acted as you did. Apologies suffer when the emphasis is on an explanation of the past rather than commitment to the future.

A second reason to hold the conversation is that you want some behaviors to change. Yes, you have spun up this fictitious persona in your head but the original story was probably based on some reality. It may be that you still want that reality to change. If this is the case, focus on the specific behaviors you would like to see change.

Reasons Not to Hold the Conversation

Here is the big one—you want to feel better. You are full of mixed emotions about your new insight, proud that you had the self-awareness to come to it, and perhaps somewhat ashamed of your prior thoughts about this person. This is all fair. You should be proud of your insight. It takes a fair degree of humility to admit to yourself that you have been wrong. And it is natural to want to share this. It will make you feel better to acknowledge the error of your past thinking and commit to do better. What is the harm in that?

The harm is that it is self-focused. You want the other person to know that you have judged him or her poorly all this time but now with your new insight you realize he or she are really not the terrible person you thought he or she was. This is not something you have to get off your chest. In fact you probably need to carry the weight of this with you for a while. Carrying that weight will help you change your thinking patterns toward this person and remind you not to judge so quickly.

The question you have to ask is: will it make the other person feel better? Will it help this person to know how you have judged him or her in the past and of your commitment to change your thinking in the future? You absolutely need to apologize for poor behavior. You may not need to apologize for poor thoughts. You have done this person wrong by judging him or her. Now you need to do right by him or her and consider the impact of sharing your new insight, your remorse, and your commitment to change.

Best of Luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

17 thoughts on “Recovering from False Perceptions”

  1. Gladys

    Thank you for pointing out that you don’t need to tell someone the bad thoughts you had about them, if you didn’t act on the thoughts in a way that damaged that person. Even if you may have behaved in a less than optimum way it’s not necessary. Lets say you think a person is a gossip. You don’t tell them things you don’t want spread around; not damaging. You don’t tell them things they need to know for their job; damaging. I once had a person tell me that they initially thought I was not very bright because of my gender, hair color and regional accent, but after working with me they realized I must be the exception to the rule. Until that point I hadn’t realized that person had such a bias because I never felt that I was being treated as if I was stupid (even if I was). However, the back-handed comment changed my internal opinion of the person. I think (hope) however, that I didn’t let it affect my behavior toward him.

  2. Robert Talmadge

    Nice work, Emily. The advice to do the right thing and not to just make one feel better was powerful. Based on the proper values. Good for you1

  3. Tim

    You are right to note that perceptions, either good or bad, have some sort of basis in the truth. I think that your point about not having a conversation to make yourself feel better is spot on but not having the conversation at all is a mistake and a clear demonstration of not caring about that person. Caring, developing, coaching all take commitment to do the right thing for that person, even when its not easy. So they need a crucial conversation in which you let them know your perception not because it makes you feel better but to empower them to take ownership of their roll in how they are perceived. Its also a chance for you to take ownership for your roll too. I feel strongly that taking ownership of how others perceive you is a very, very powerful tool that builds self awareness, growth, and trust. Have the conversation but for the right reasons.

  4. Robyn Norman

    Nice! In fact, kind of brilliant :).

  5. Susan

    Dear Emily, I have a question about the person receiving the apology. I was in a similar situation where a family member apologized for treating me badly. But I want to know what I did to initiate the behavior. She won’t tell me. She says it’s petty. I like closure and I like to improve my behavior.
    Now what?

  6. Wendy Wong

    I would really like to hear your thoughts from the other point of view — from the pov of the person who has been misjudged. Should that person hold a conversation? And if so, how?

  7. Ben Semadeni

    It seems like the most important crucial conversation is the one we have with ourselves in Start with Heart. I have found that most of my issues are resolved in that step.

  8. Dr jim sellner PhD., dipC.

    Hi Emily,
    Thank you for your article.
    After having counseled about 1000 couples over the years, I disagree with you view of reasons not to share.
    yes, the three points you make are difficult to deal with for both parties. My question to people in this dilemma is “Do you want to die lonely?”
    Intimacy calls for self-disclosure including the Good “I love you.”; the Bad “I have a difficulty when you yell at me.”‘ The Ugly “right now I am not feeling that close to you.”; the Beautiful ” I love your beauty, your courage to face difficulties, your loving spirit, you light up my life.”
    Not self-disclosing for fear of “hurting the other” implies that the other is weak and cannot handle life – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – they act weak.
    Dr. Jim Sellner, PhD., DipC.

    1. Gladys

      I think some people may be missing the finer points of the discussion. Person A had a bad opinion of person B. Person A realized that they were WRONG to have that opinion. Person A never behaved badly toward Person B based on what they thought. The only person who was harmed was Person A. Therefore Person A should NOT tell Person B what they were thinking. It’s not going to help Person B and could actually harm them. This is MUCH different than NOT having a conversation about Person B about an opinion that is valid and based on Person B’s behavior which would need to be addressed for the health of the relationship. Anyway that’s how I read the story about FALSE perceptions.

      1. CharlesD

        Well stated, Gladys. Short & precise.


    2. Grizzly Bear Mom

      I am going to ponder this. I come from a family that lives off of my mother, yet call ME cheap. I am thrifty. I have no back up. I was wondering if I should say something like “I PAY your brother to watch my dog when I fly to Europe.” How much do you pay my mom for child care, food and lodging?” They have been in mom’s house since 1991 and owe her hundreds of thousands.

  9. Andy Carnahan

    Really sage advice, Emily. Sitting with and managing our own guilt for our own mis-perceptions rather than wanting to burden the other person with our catharsis. Hard to do, but you have explained beautifully why this road less travelled is a kinder and better path.

    And I really appreciate the other posts in this thread as well.

    Will we now see Crucial non-conversations as a best seller?

    1. Grizzly Bear Mom

      So much wisdom in your joke Andy Carnahan! Alcoholics Anonymous says that we ask for forgiveness only when it doesn’t hurt others; so a lot of us are going to be the only one stewing in our own juices.

      I’d like to see how Crucial Non-Conversations could be a best seller. We sure need to “shut up in 7 different languages”.

  10. Terri

    This is brilliant analysis of common communication problems that often blow up relationships. As a therapist and a middle sister in a triangle of false perceptions, I find myself trying to weed through the minefields of these kinds of blow ups on a regular basis. I’m wondering how I can share this article with my sisters who chronically battle each other with a war of words. Not wanting to come off as righteous, I want to be a peacemaker and try to help mend some broken fences. Thoughts??

  11. CharlesD

    Not your battle, Terri.

    If your sisters entangle you, participate. However, do so kindly and gently (start with heart) to reveal truth. Use questions like “What makes you think that?” “When did she say/do that?” “Why do you feel this way, exactly?”

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