Peter Johnson & PiM

Insights Discovery & Deeper Discovery Licensed Practitioners

Our perception is not always the reality

I have been interested in bird life since I was a small child. Perhaps helped by parents who took a great interesting in nature. When they saw a bird they would know what variety it was, without the merest hesitation in recognition, and a casual comment on identification. As if it were a part of usual conversation.

So it was with interest that I enjoyed a wonderful spectacle as I was walking across a field not far from a river. Eventually I just stopped and looked at the considerable number of birds in the air working independently to gather flying insects, yet all whizzing around the field together.  A sheer delight to enjoy looking at them. They seemed to dance and dart and dash in the small groups they formed. Twisting and turning in the air. Soaring up then diving, dipping, descending so close to the ground, only to playfully power up - ascending again at speed.

It is the time of the year when there are swallows and swifts around. I knew they were not swallows and automatically assumed they were swifts. They looked like swifts, and were feeding like the swifts that I had seen on countless occasions before.

As you can see in the rather poor picture, it is dull; but my mind was made up – they were swifts. Then I enjoyed their antics, as I took some time to stop and stare, I noticed however that there was something not quite right. Now this had me a little confused, and concerned for my judgement. So I looked harder, took more notice, carefully checking the plumage; the flying style; the size; the wing shape in flight, and on the turn; and more. I was unsettled, so much so I when I returned home I got my books out and did some careful research.

The following day I was back to see them again, the weather was not as good, the sky even more grey. Drizzle in the air. Yet they were still there, chasing the small flies. So I looked even more carefully as I was now seeking out specific things. No, they were not swifts! I had been caught by my time living in the country, seeing swifts regularly. I had not added in the factor of the river, and their slightly smaller size. These were in fact sand martins – the main visible difference is the amount of white on their underside. Now this is not a lesson in ornithology, so what is my point you may be wondering?

After my ‘ah ha’ moment I watched in wonderment for a while longer, then eventually tore myself away and resumed my second, unplanned walk.

As I walked on it made me thinking about my work, which includes personality and behavioural psychology -  and the impact in the workplace developing individuals, teams and businesses. In particular, the initial basic understanding I help team members develop around they way to work with their colleagues, to develop high performance.

Sometimes we look and label people as having certain characteristics – job done, ‘I know their type’.  I stress, that is whether we know anything about psychology or not – we will have an opinion.

It is something discussed early in any session using Insights Discovery – using an initial exercise based on perception. A further exercise uses a picture, that within it, lies both an old and a young lady – some people seeing one, some seeing the other, some seeing both. Most missing the penguins that are in the picture too!

The lesson from the birds was so important – it is the finer detail that really helps to maximise our understanding. Taking a little more note, taking a little more time, suspending judgement before we reach a decision, not always relying on past patterns of identification before we come to consider what ‘their type’ may truly be. Or, if indeed, they are young or old.

Because of this I am sure it was why, only a few days later, when someone passed a comment on another person, being of a particular ‘type’, that I dug in a little deeper, and asked a few questions, such as: ‘Why do you think that?’ 'What evidence have you to back that up?’ 'What else did you notice?’ and more. I was not being challenging, or distrusting, I was aiming to make sure that the identification made sense in the situation under discussion.

I was thinking of the swift and the sand martin. The sand martin is more often found close to water and I had not thought of this factor. It was a dull day so it was less easy to see the detail of the plumage. I also had nothing easy to hand to contrast the size of the birds; all of these factors had an impact on my initial decision. Plus, and an important plus, I also had my own preconception to deal with. Maybe I had become lazy or complacent too!

All in all, excellent learning from my point. Yes, a great walk and time to appreciate the marvels of nature. Time to enjoy the magnificence of these wonderful creatures, doing what they have evolved into doing, to survive. And a great reminder that one needs to look more closely, and crucially, with an open mind. Our perception is not always the reality.

I know that I need to remind myself to keep my mind open – to assume less, look carefully and ask more questions before I make a decision.

How about you?

My best wishes,