“Let me move next to you”

As a licensed mental health counselor I have the honor to be a witness and a companion of many people’s journey and together we have realized that our perspective has a huge impact in relationships. As a human being I have lived difficult moments as well as peaceful moments, depending on the permission I grant myself to dare to look from the perspective of others.  Think about the following sentence: “The worst distance between two people is misunderstanding”. I want to invite you to shorter the distance by getting to know a little more about perception, how it affects our relationships, and what can we do about it.

What is perception?

Perception can be defined as our recognition and interpretation of sensory information. Perception also includes how we respond to the information. We can think of perception as a process where we take in sensory information from our environment and use that information in order to interact with our environment. Perception allows us to take the sensory information in and make it into something meaningful.

Business dictionary defines perception as: “ The process by which people translate sensory impressions into a coherent and unified view of the world around them.  Though necessarily based on incomplete and unverified (or unreliable) information, perception is equated with reality for most practical purposes and guides human behavior in general.”  Definition perception

The stages of perception

The process of perception occurs through the evolving of the following stages:

  1. Stimulation or Selection: We choose the object (situation, person, etc) we want to perceive.
  2. Organization: We arrange the information that we perceive.
  3. Interpretation-Evaluation: We engage in the process of assessing, understanding, and organizing the elements perceived.
  4. Memory: We do not keep all of the information perceived but we recall certain information we want to remember or get stuck in our minds based on multiple factors (personality, history, expectations, etc.)


Factors involved in perception

This process is heavily marked by the unique characteristics of each person and is mainly guided by interpretation.  The way each person interprets depend on multiple variables such as our culture, values, traditions, our experiences from the day we were conceived to the present moment, the conclusions we make based on those experiences, our cognitive style, personality, just to mention a few.

Is reality what we perceive?  If every person perceives differently, it means that there are different realities?  I would say yes!  Because the way we perceive and move in reality stems from our own unique past experiences.  Look at a glass filled with water half way and tell me: Is it the glass half full or half empty?  Are both statements true?  Yes, both are true!..  And this is what happens at all levels, in our families, at work, in education, politics, etc.  The fight for who has the truth is a lost battle since most beliefs depend with the lenses you choose to see the world.

We make conclusions about reality, relationships, the way the world should be, we interpret and we create paradigms that support our perception of reality.  This is in psychology called “Perceptual Sets”.  A perceptual set is basically a tendency to view things only in a certain way. Perceptual sets can impact how we interpret and respond to the world around us and can be influenced by a number of different factors.

“Perception can also be influenced by an individual’s expectations, motives, and interests. The term perceptual set refers to the tendency to perceive objects or situations from a particular frame of reference. Perceptual sets usually lead us to reasonably accurate conclusions. If they didn’t, we would develop new perceptual sets that were more accurate”
(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2008).

This tendency is illustrated in a research where participants were presented with different non-words, such as sael. Those who were told that they would be reading boating-related words read the word as “sail,” while those who were told to expect animal-related words read it as “seal.”  This is one of the many examples that demonstrate   how perceptions are heavily influenced by expectations and prior knowledge. If we expect something to appear in a certain way, we are more likely to perceive it according to our expectations.

When we talk about perception, we can identify the following aspects as underlying the process:

  1. COGNITIVE SCHEMAS: A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information to instead focus only on things that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and prejudices making difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established ideas about the world.
  2. COGNITIVE STYLE: The way we process the information.  Some people is skillful at learning by listening while others grasp concepts in an easier manner if they can have a direct experience by exploring, touching, experiencing in general.
  3. MOTIVATION & NEEDS: If we are rooting for our favorite sports team, we might be motivated to view members of the opposing team as overly aggressive, weak, or incompetent. In one classic experiment, researchers deprived participants of food for several hours. When they were later shown a set of ambiguous images, those who had been food-deprived were far more likely to interpret the images as food-related objects. Because they were hungry, they were more motivated to see the images in a certain way.
  4. EXPECTATIONS: If we expect people to behave certain ways in certain situations, these expectations can influence how we perceive these people and their roles. One of the classic experiments on the impact of expectation on perceptual sets involved showing participants either a series of numbers or letters. Then, the participants were shown an ambiguous image that could either be interpreted as the number 13 or the letter B. Those who had viewed the numbers were more likely to see it as a 13, while those who had viewed the letters were more likely to see it as the letter B.
  5. CULTURE: Researchers have found that people from different cultures even tend to perceive perspective and depth cues differently.
  6. EMOTIONS: If we are angry, we might be more likely to perceive hostility in others.
  7. SENSORIAL EXPERIENCES: One experiment demonstrated that when people came to associate a nonsense syllable with mild electrical shocks, they experienced physiological reactions to the syllable even when it was presented subliminally.


Perceptual shortcuts we use in judging others

  • Selective Perception: People choose information that fits their selective interpretation based on their interests, experience, background, and attitude, among other variables.
  • Halo Effect: Selecting a single characteristic to form a general impression about an individual.
  • Contrast Effects: Evaluations of a person’s characteristics that are affected by comparisons with other people recently encountered who rank higher or lower on the same characteristics.
  • Projection: Attributing one’s own characteristics to other people
  • Stereotyping
  • Judging someone on the basis of one’s perception of the group to which that person belongs.


 Becoming aware of the lenses you are using:


  • Differentiate opinions from facts
  • Changing perspective: from them to me
  • Avoid thinking on absolute terms, notice if you are overanalyzing by playing the “movie” again and again in your mind.
  • When someone says, writes, texts, and/or emails something you don’t like, take a deep breath (maybe several breathes) before answering.


  • Be grounded: Stay in the here and now by connecting to your body, breathing, consciously doing some physical activity.


  • Don’t allow reactions fueled by judgment and blame to take the control.
  • Decrease the use of judgmental words
  • Develop empathetic listening skills


  • Be open and willing to see other perspectives
  • Keep in mind that the same process and factors involved in your perception of the world, happen for every other human being in a unique manner.
  • Increase your awareness of acting as if you own the truth (be aware of your own stereotypes and prejudices)
  • Look at everything and everybody with curiosity and when in doubt, ask question, seek to clarify.
  • Embrace differences (can you feel gratitude for the fact that all human beings are so diverse?)

What we perceive is determined by our mental paradigms or schemas. It is influenced by our mood, and ultimately affected by multiple variables.  What we perceive about the world we live in is colored by our experiences like we are seeing what surround us through colored glasses.

Becoming aware of this complex process and daring to stretch our limits and open our sight range, might be one of the biggest tools to stop taking things so personally and create understanding and meaningful relationships.  With that being said, I invite you to take the step towards empathetic interactions.  I invite you to stand next to the people you interact with and look in the same direction, see their perspective.  You may not agree with them, and that is ok but at least you can understand them better, without taking things too personal. Moreover, I invite you to allow me to move next to you and see the world from your point of view.

Diana Castaño