The Things We Don’t See

Experience does not err. Only your judgments err by expecting from her what is not in her power.  —Leonardo da Vinci

B oarding a plane yesterday, passengers encountered a particularly assertive flight attendant. She was really pushing passengers to get in their seats. Sitting at the very back of the plane, I was able to watch her continually ask passengers to clear the aisle and sit down. Many were getting a bit impatient with her as she repeatedly asked that they not negotiate seat changes or dig things out of bags placed in the overheads. She seemed edgy and impatient. Laughing a bit to myself, I wondered about the burr in her saddle: Bad day? Too much humanity?

After boarding and with cabin doors shut, we waited 20 minutes before receiving clearance to depart the gate and then spent another 30 minutes taxiing to the runway. An apologetic pilot came over the intercom: “Forgive the delay folks, it is a busy day and we are number 25 in the queue; we’ll be on our way as quickly as possible.” I realized immediately that our pushy flight attendant was trying to get everyone in their seats and the door shut so we could get our place in what she knew was a very long queue. What I saw a few minutes earlier as impatience now was clearly an informed person on a mission which was protecting our best interests. My perception of this particular flight attendant  was further corrected as she later shared stories of her family, especially her newborn grandson, with us during the flight.

Day in and day out, we look but we don’t always see. We hear but we’re not always listening. We perceive but it is often only a glimpse of a much deeper reality. We interpret people’s words and actions through the lens of our own biases, beliefs, and assumptions, often knowing only a sliver of their entire story. Stories abound of individuals behaving rudely, indifferently, or incomprehensibly to those perched on the sidelines only to later discover that the individual had just lost someone they love, received a soon-to-be life ending diagnosis, or experienced trauma in one shape or another. Deeper realities that gave context and rationale to behavior that was inexplicable just a few moments before.

We interpret people’s words and actions through the lens of our own biases, beliefs, and assumptions, often knowing only a sliver of their entire story.

The human animal is built for snap judgments, instincts built over thousands of years to help us survive. We process information and draw conclusions quickly, sizing someone up in the blink of an eye. The perception of some seems prescient as they read a room or a person with uncanny skill. However, that same talent turns to a liability when it blinds us to the bigger picture; the deeper reality hiding beyond the scope of our perception. We all know this intuitively as well as through our own embarrassing experiences yet we compulsively fall victim to the limits of our perceptions and associated conclusions time and time again. Why?

One reason we continue to embrace snap judgments is because it is easy and we normally don’t come face to face with a refutation. Our conclusion can remain intact because we make it at a safe distance, with others who share it, and we don’t make any effort to affirm or debunk it. We can simply hold it, true or not, and go our merry way. Sometimes, we even seek input that further supports our conclusions, blocking out anything that might conflict with our assertion. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to reside in its conclusions.

Another reason we hold dearly to quick assessments is because they feed the narrative in which we want to live. That person is bad because ______ and therefore I am a better person because I do not _______ . Or, I am comfortable believing ______ so I will not seek any information that might counter it. Of course, the problem comes when we are wrong, partially or completely, and then come face to face with facts refuting our conclusions. The person we want to believe is a bad person ends up doing good things. The mean flight attendant has information I don’t have and her rough behavior suddenly looks reasonable when put into a broader context.

Our black and white conclusions suddenly look brittle and we are reminded that the world is far too nuanced for such a simple approach.

Knowing that we are often wrong in our initial assessments (and numerous other conclusions), perhaps we might work to mitigate potential errors with some intention. Look at your own read on others and their situations:

  1. Ask yourself if you are predisposed to a certain conclusion for any reason whatsoever. No judgment, just honesty.
  2. Is there a bigger picture? Of course there is but you need to acknowledge it before you can effectively react to it.
  3. Think a few moves ahead. Are you intentionally or unintentionally seeking a certain conclusion? Why? What else might be going on?
  4. Seek to empathize. What might you think if you were standing in the other person’s shoes? How might you feel? How would you behave?
  5. Should I gather more information? From where? Is it worth the effort? Is my snap judgment meant to make me feel better about myself?
  6. Lead with patience. Have you given yourself time to gain a broader understanding? Have you given others the opportunity to justify their behavior?
  7. Given your words and actions, what might other conclude about you? What would you want them to conclude?

Why should we worry about it? Because more effectively managing your tendencies in judgment and reaction helps you become a better version of yourself. You are called to more than your biases and the clearer your lens in viewing the world around you, the better your opportunity to thrive in all circumstances.

What else are we not seeing? Whether it is about others or ourselves, our vision and perception will always be limited. Though we’ll never have absolute clarity, we can get better at understanding the limitations of our judgments and work to be more effective in their interpretation. There is always a deeper story. Stephen Covey told us to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Don’t eliminate your judgments, optimize them.


If you like this post, you might like my new book, Every Day is Game Day. Now available for pre-order:


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