How Do You See Me? 5 Steps to Changing Perceptions

What happens when people are used to seeing us one way, and we try to change?

I have been noticing this work lately with clients, while also continuing my personal leader journey to grow and learn. Often, clients who come to us for coaching have, by their own admission, a “perception problem,” which often means that they have people in their world who have a lock on them as “the old me.” Typically, a weakness or negative attribute has trained the people around them to “always” see them in a certain way, and as they strive to change, they face resistance from others, which creates frustration.

“I have changed, why can’t people see the new me?”

“I know I used to do that, but I haven’t in a long time?”

“My intention was never bad, but they still react negatively…”

Personally, I have noticed that some of my acute personal flaws show up over and over again, which to my horror, causes people notice and experience repeated frustration. For example, as anyone who knows me can vouch, I am challenged by time. It has been a lifelong goal for me to show up on time, present and accountable for whomever I am meeting with. Yet despite 52 years of practice, a great deal of consciousness, and hard work, I still occasionally am late. Even worse, when I am on time, I am still frequently seen as late.

Why is it that when we change, it is hard for people to see us differently?

It has a lot to do with the mental models we hold. If early in a partnership, I show up late, for example, people I work with make a note, and when it happens more than once, they assign that attribute to me as “a late person.” Forever after, without consistent incidents of showing up on time, people around me expect lateness. Recreating a perception of me as a “punctual person” requires about 4 times the effort now than it would have required when we first met. That’s because I am trying to change a perception, not form one for the first time. I think of it as a “perception imprint.”

Net-Net: first and early impressions REALLY count. It sets up a neural pathway, a mental model, and a picture that forever shows up with others. The easiest way to marry how I am perceived by others with how I want to be perceived by them is to show up exactly as I want to be seen the very first time.

But if you, like me, in your flawed and jagged humanity, misstep early on in a partnership, here are some suggestions that might help:

  1. Acknowledge the perception

This is often the scary step of admitting that we know of our flaw, and that we are aware of the impact on others.

  1. Reveal the intention you have

State clearly that you want to be seen differently, and that you are committed to growing in your ability in the identified area.

  1. Ask for compassion and give self-compassion

As human beings we are perfect and flawed at the same time, and there is huge grace in allowing ourselves to be seen fully, even if it means imperfectly (by self and others).

  1. Offer continued steady progress

This is where we commit to continued work matching our ideal to our real selves in partnership, and we name how we are practicing to be.

  1. Ask for future feedback

Although this is hard, because we often tell ourselves privately that we will never misstep again, we do, so it makes sense to ask people we work with to let us know of we accidentally misstep in the future.

Perception problems are hard to shift once established. But to be seen fully in partnerships at work and home, we must embrace our ideal and our real selves, and show up as striving, learning, and growing. If nothing else, this creates a human connection that most people can relate to, and invites the openness to be seen as we really are: perfect and flawed.

Jim Morris