All of us act on our perceptions; we respond to the reality that we define and see. That should be obvious. What is less obvious to many of us, however, is that others perceptions are not the same as ours. All too often these differences, sometimes very logically based differences, do not surface until they are part of a disagreement. By then, what started as small misunderstandings or predictable differences have become entrenched positions and major conflicts.
This is not to suggest that people should not hold different perceptions or that the goal should be for everyone to see everything the same way. There is a special richness that comes from the understanding and consensus derived from an exchange of disparate opinions. Whatever the outcome or product that is fashioned, it will be stronger if the process took into consideration a variety of perceptions.
Sometimes the different perceptions are obvious from the beginning, as when people have opposing values or beliefs. Even people who share the same basic educational philosophy may have radically different perceptions. There are many reasons why this is so. In part, our background and culture influence how we view situations and what opinions we hold on issues. Surfacing these differences and finding common ground is a much stronger approach than pretending that they do not exist.
People act on their perceptions; thus, it is important that perceptions be shared. Otherwise, we too easily assume that everyone is on the same page—until things go awry and communication breaks down. Once people stop communicating, distrust grows and people begin to attribute negative motives to one another. At best, inefficiency results. At worst, communication breaks down and relationships dissolve. People see those who do not share their views as adversaries.
What can be done? It is important to legitimize the natural and appropriate differences and perceptions that exist by creating an environment where all opinions are valued and respected.
As society our life and work environments become more racially, ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse, we must learn to anticipate differences and handle them in a positive manner.