Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

What To Do When Perceptions Aren’t Reality

Dear Steve,

For the past five years or so, I’ve often heard the phrase “perception is reality” and it makes me cringe. On one hand, I can see that in the heat of the moment it is very helpful to understand what the other person is feeling or perceiving to gain common ground and reach understanding. However, I mostly see the phrase used to justify those “Heat of the Moment” feelings and to make the case that your perceptions are truth and are also valid for all eternity. When a child says, “I hate you” to a disciplining parent, we usually agree it’s a temporary feeling and will pass once the sting of discipline has come and gone. However, for some, there seems to be a general acceptance that how they feel is valid now and forever, almost as an excuse for not exerting self-control. Your thoughts?

Searching for Reality

Dear Searching,

Like you, I’ve heard this phrase tossed around since the beginning of my career—some twenty plus years ago. While the original intention was to serve as a reminder that people equate their perceptions of their experiences as their reality, it soon became a way to justify inaction, unfair or uninformed judgements, or to pursue the easiest path forward. It started to

become yet another, more acceptable way of declaring, “serenity now!”

Before I get too far into this, I should disclose that I started my career designing and analyzing organizational assessments in all their varieties. I played my part in slathering on a fair number of these types of phrases to position our services. But as I’ve studied both sides of the issue over the past twenty years, I’ve come to a more complete understanding of the concept. Perception is indeed reality . . . unless you take action to make it otherwise.

Here’s how it works. There is a specific brain science (or brain curse for some) that comes into play here. Our brains are wired to help us identify and handle complex patterns of behaviors. It starts doing so when these patterns are first created—from the very first appearance of the very first instance. In these moments, we very quickly formulate a hypothesis as to why said instance came to be, as well as how it fits into our world. And here’s where things get interesting: Once this new perception is created, the brain starts looking for confirming data that this is reality. In its search, the brain will accept all kinds of data as confirming data—regardless of whether it is, in fact, confirming data.

So, there you have it. The brain draws a tentative conclusion which very quickly converts from perception into reality. That is, unless you take action to make it otherwise. Here’s what I mean: the longer this new perception goes unchallenged, the closer to reality it becomes. That’s why these perceptions are so difficult to dismiss verbally. You need to actively generate a new data stream—one that helps people realign to reality.

One of my long-time partners, Kerry Patterson, described the phenomenon this way: “In an uncertain atmosphere, all ambiguous behaviors will be interpreted negatively. And by the way, all behaviors are ambiguous.” So, don’t leave it up to perception to decide what something means, take action to reverse the perception curse.

One of the most effective ways is to engage in symbolic actions. A symbolic action is any interaction taken where others who witness it will walk away knowing your values and priorities. While they can take many forms, there are some big categories of symbolic actions to tap into including sacrifices of time, previous priorities, and ego.

Next time you hear “perception is reality” ask yourself what actions would provide unmistakable data about reality?

Time: How can I, and/or other leaders, make time to demonstrate our highest priority? What meetings or events should we attend? Are there opportunities to share messages or teach mini-lessons that would reinforce desired values? Am we present for both formal and informal gatherings? How could we spend my time in a way that sends a positive message about our desired reality?

Priorities: What is most important to our team? What alignments could be made in work, projects, and other initiatives to demonstrate what matters most? Are there previous priorities we can put aside in favor of higher value ones?

Ego: Are there times and/or places where I haven’t walked the talk? Do I need to publicly acknowledge personal shortcomings? Have others coached me to become better? If so, how can I recognize their contributions? How can I demonstrate that even though I fall short, I keep on practicing to get better?

Bottom line, when others justify their behavior or attitudes by their perceptions, you can counteract the incorrect assumptions they’ve made by asking yourself, “What could I do that would be visible and meaningful? What would create new data points that would help individuals realign their perceptions with reality?”

Best of luck,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

22 thoughts on “What To Do When Perceptions Aren’t Reality”

  1. Thomas Benzoni

    Just thought:
    I have a series of sayings to which I object, occasionally openly (which makes me disruptive.)
    Perception = reality is the definition of schizophrenia.
    Want others? Many involve math.

    1. Steve

      love to hear them

  2. PK

    excellent. speaks volumes to things happening in our country. i will be ‘borrowing’ your words to act visibly and with meaning.

  3. Steve

    Lay them on me.

  4. TCroll

    Question: If the person forming or carrying the incorrect perception is only gathering “confirming data”, how can my actions serve to change their perception? Seems their minds are bound and determined to prove them right regardless…

    1. Steve

      that’s what makes this tricky. it can’t be just any action and hope it will make a difference. It has to be one that will obvious, and may need to be a series of these to make a big difference. when you combine that with being explicit about what you’re trying to accomplish (telegraphing your intentions and then acting in way to support them), it becomes hard for them to refute.

  5. LaVar Riess

    Perceptions and opinions do not directly create reality. Truth does not change simply due to our false perceptions or opinions about it. If you believe the world is flat, the entire earth does not automatically become physically flat for you while remaining spherical for everyone else. The reality of the matter is that we need to be aware of others’ perceptions and opinions and that such thoughts will drive others to act in accordance with them. Those actions must be addressed because they are real even though the driving perceptions and opinions behind them may not be based in reality.

  6. Karen

    I found this article very difficult to follow. Some discussions cannot be terminated with both parties being happy with, either the other person’s perception, or reality. I think we all have an innate need to convince that reality is OUR position, and the other person is just perceiving !
    I worked for 40 years in mental health, and when someone is delusional….it is perception, but it is very much their reality. The only way perception shifts into reality is trust and respect for who you are talking to; and this takes lots of patience and time.
    In short interactions with people their perception, is their reality, as is yours’. It really doesn’t matter what scientific neurological development that you mention……people always think their opinion/ perception has value…….hence I am writing this comment !!

  7. Steve

    When you look back to the Seligman’s on learned happiness, or the Arbinger Institute’s more recent work, they find that mindset not only warps your perception of reality, but get you to act in ways that starts bending your reality to be closer to your perception therein reinforcing your false perceptions. So the combination of helping people examine their assumptions (Crucial Conversations skills) and engage with them in way so as to send deliberate messages to the contrary (symbolic actions).

  8. Steve

    Many of these perceptions have developed over a longer period of time, and therefore require a longer period of time to address. And it’s not about devaluing or dismissing another’s opinions/percpetions, it’s about engaging with them in deliberate ways to help expand, refine, or “right-size” perceptions. And you’re right, that can require a good deal of patience.

    1. bean q

      i think your approach also implies some degree of coercion, which i’d be more inclined to accept in a parenting situation, but much less so between adults who theoretically should get to decide the weights they place on their own perspectives relative to the idealized versions of their communities of the moment.

      i think karen brings up exactly what i was trying to bring up too (in that comment i don’t see after i tried posting it five minutes ago…): it’s less about about aligning perceptions with an objective reality and more about aligning values with one another, finding common ground, a shared goal, etc. otherwise there’s no point in communicating.

      1. Steve

        finding common ground, values and goals is great starting point, and then you have to ask yourself what would I need to do in order to breathe life into those statements. Coercion would suggest I’m imposing a consequence if you don’t believe me, or withholding until you change your perspective. Whereas with symbolic actions, it requires time and patience, and there is not guarantee that perceptions will change today or even next week.

        1. bean q

          fully in agreement that the statements should be supported by living proof…

          …, but what i think is being withheld (depending on your position: e.g. bosses can withhold more intangibles that impact careers under their stewardship than non-bosses, agreement on a shared perspective/reality being probably the biggest one) is a common or collaborative framing of the issue; withholding that, imo, defines the quintessential political mechanism, with all its nasty connotations of “politics”.
          (you said it exactly: “i’m … withholding until you change your perspective.”, i.e. stubbornly keeping my own perspective, the implication being “because it’s the ‘right’ perspective!”)

          you could also say, if those who disagree with an issue’s framing are forced out, that consequences were thus imposed… but then i think it’s more about aligning values (i.e. they weren’t pushed out as much as not in the right niche with which to begin …, but by using “niche” i’m trying to imply a misalignment between the community’s –and not one individual’s– perspective/reality and those who were removed or removed themselves).

        2. bean q

          these two questions are what i was addressing in particular:
          ” ‘What could I do that would be visible and meaningful? What would create new data points that would help individuals realign their perceptions with reality?’ ”.

          when you say “new data points … realign perceptions with reality” i think it should read “new data points … demonstrate the value of a certain perspective” (…since data points imply a certain framing of the issue).

          i addressed these in my invisible post (I emailed it to “info” at vitalsmarts; you can pick and choose if you’d like to respond to anything, make a weekly prompt of it, trash it with prejudice, etc).

  9. Dave

    Steve, thank you for posting on this topic and for the many insights you have shared.

    On this particular topic, I would suggest a somewhat different approach. I don’t believe that “Perception is indeed reality . . . unless you take action to make it otherwise.” Instead, I believe their is a reality separate from our perceptions. Problems arise when, as you point out, our perceptions are false, and we adopt an incorrect version of reality. As you say, we tend to adopt versions of reality that align with our emotions, regardless of their accuracy. Since the adoption of a version of reality is at least as much an emotional as a rational process, facts alone often won’t change someone’s mind. The persuasion process needs to engage emotions as well.

  10. Steve

    Very nice insight. I like that a lot.

  11. Elaine Murphy

    Our perceptions are are own, individual reality. Have been having this discussion with friends about the headlines that trigger our emotions to influence our perception of reality.

    Kelly’s, “In an uncertain atmosphere, all ambiguous behaviors will be interpreted negatively,” certainly describes what we have in our news today when headlines use quotes that speak ambiguously or with use the quote out of context.

    A very helpful discussion. Many thanks.

    1. Lorraine Bydalek

      Our thoughts are not our OWN. We do not have individual thought. Starting a blank slate EVERYONE who’s had contact with you has written in/on it. The same applies to them. That is billions of people creating your/my thoughts. Even if you search out new information that new info. is automatically altered by your perception. Thoughts we were TAUGHT shapes the Emotions we us our Perception which creates our Reality. This is all deeper than most want to grasp. Thank you for sharing. Lorraine

  12. udidwht

    Best to believe in your own perception not others. Thst phrase is heavily abused my inexperienced misled managers.

    1. Lorraine Bydalek

      Honestly there is no such thing as “Your OWN perception”. Perception is conceived from emotion/thoughts which we were taught. They are not OUR thoughts but a culmination of every single person that we interacted with or just overheard.. We are taught someone else’s thoughts which shapes our Emotions gives us our perception that creates our Reality…just saying.

      1. bean

        lol “just saying” a point that influences maybe all human behavior past present and future… loving it

  13. Jase

    I’m a little concerned that you are compounding error here. Not only do you want me to have a clear perception of a situation but now you are suggesting that I should somehow divine someone else’s perspective and act in a way that provides a symbolic token THAT MEANS SOMETHING TO THEM. This is great when the situation is easy to understand and there are no complexities involved–but then you wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. I think the idea of guessing someone’s reaction to a situation is entirely egotistic. How dare you presume to know what I am thinking? And the problem is that if you get it wrong, you are now being insulting and it’s going to have negative repercussions because you are so pedantic to think that offering me some symbolic morse is bridge-forming like I am a scared child coming for candy. This could end up causing more harm than good.
    Isn’t it better to let someone have a confused perception that you correct when they ask for correction or when they tell you what they are thinking. It just seems a little demeaning to “offer” some symbolic token when they could be miles ahead of you and looking back at you laughing at how stupid you thought they were. Furthermore, we look for confirmation and distort reality to meet our needs. But when we find out that our reality was wrong, we have the opportunity to learn and incorporate the new reality into our prediction formula. That learning in itself is valuable and universal. I have used this exact tactic to great effect in my past. I find that acting with integrity and stability works much better–if you can present your reality in a predictable and consistent manner, then deal with the outliers, you will have better luck. Otherwise, you appear condescending to everyone and that robs them of any desire to willfully change their own perception. Thanks for your post.

Leave a Reply