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The Power of Perception Pt. II

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

What makes a conversation turn sideways? Why do words have the ability to hold power over us? Believe it or not, our perceptions have a lot to do with it. In this episode, Tim and Chris dive deeper into how our perceptions of ourselves affect relationships.

Speaker 1: Welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast. We are grateful for listeners like you. Let's get right into it.

Chris Grace: Welcome to another podcast. Tim, it's really good to be with you, and I love the opportunity just to talk about relationships, pick your brain. And then what we do is we get to just cover some cool topics. One we've been talking about that I'd love to just hear some of your thoughts and then let's just kind of go back and forth a little bit on, this idea of the way in which relationships are impacted by the way we view the world or the things that we've experienced; broadly, it'd be our perceptions. So all of our relationships have... We could probably say the word, all, are impacted by what I believe about them, what I believe, what happened from my childhood on up, current experiences, past experiences all go into shaping the way I view other people, and especially by close intimate relationships.

Tim Muehlhoff: Now, I was at a marriage conference, and a woman walked up to me, and you could tell she was pretty steamed, she was pretty upset. I said, "Can I help you?" And she said, "Yeah, I'm just sick of my husband. It's just so frustrating. He never lets me do anything for him." I said, "Well, like what?" She goes, "Well, in the morning, when I brush my teeth, I just put toothpaste on his brush." He was standing right behind, and he gave such a sarcastic laugh. She turned around and looked at him, and I just looked at him. He goes, "Listen, I already have a mother. I don't need another one." So think about that. What went South? She thinks she's doing something like, "Hey, I'm just thinking of you. This is just a kind, courteous, kind of thing." He looks at it like, you're trying to mother me.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, communication scholars have come up with this really interesting term that kind of helps us understand how a conversation can go sideways through our perception. We call it the definition of the situation. It happens immediately when two people start talking. It's made up of three basic questions: one, beliefs I have about myself as we're talking, second, beliefs I have about you during this conversation, and what are we trying to do together in this conversation? So the example I use with my Biola students is let's say I've given an examination and then afterwards we're going over the answers and a woman raises her hand and says, "Hey, I have a bone to pick about question 13. I kind of feel like it was really vague as if you were trying to trick us."

Tim Muehlhoff: Immediately, before she's even done, the definition of the situation has kicked in. Beliefs I have about myself, I've been a professor for about 20 years, I've written a lot of tests. I think I'm a good test writer. My tests are fair. I would never try to trick a student, beliefs about myself. Second, beliefs about her. Right now, I don't know much about her. She's a new student in one of my classes. I believe that this is a power struggle. At best, she's questioning my testability, at worst, she's going after my credibility. What are we trying to do together? This is a power struggle. Now, if that's my interpretation of it, then Chris, how's that conversation going to go if that's how I interpret what she's doing?

Chris Grace: Yeah. At that point, it becomes this matter of how you interpret things is simply going to determine next your interactions with her. Right?

Tim Muehlhoff: It colors the whole thing.

Chris Grace: It colors everything. Tim, in that situation, that can happen with encounters between strangers, it can be encounters with people we kind of know. And then of course those encounters become a little bit more charged when there's more intimacy in the relationship.

Tim Muehlhoff: And history.

Chris Grace: And history. So if you're dating somebody or engaged or married, then those things carry different weight. Sometimes we can substitute an entire conversation for a simple look, like a raised eyebrow by a spouse can mean something just because of the built up history. Even just that, look, why are you looking at me this way? I wonder, Tim, in some of this, when we talk about relationships generally, listeners out there oftentimes talk about their perceptions of others as impacting, but they sometimes ask this question, how do I get to know other people, what their really heart is like and discern what this person is? Many of them go, "I just don't know if I have the ability to figure that out. Will I ever know their deepest heart, and how do I do that better, and how can I perceive them more accurately?" So Tim, there's some ways in which... I love looking at relationships that are forming and ways in which we can better discern the heart, the character of another person. What are these tendencies or characteristics, and how can we be more accurate in our perceptions?

Tim Muehlhoff: A long answer to that question would be, very quickly in a past podcast, we did Jay Quattrone characterization, characterization correction. Well, you're right. When you sit down and talk to a person, because you're a little miffed, you're like, "Dude, what was that look you gave me? Or that tone of voice?" But in the correction stage, you realize, "No, they were just tired. They are upset." So let me tell you what actually happened in that scenario if that scenario actually did happen. I didn't know the student, I just simply said... I answered the question, I said, "Well, yeah, let's look at question 13. That's fair."

Tim Muehlhoff: Afterwards, I asked to speak to her. I then realized that she was incredibly stressed. This was literally her last semester, she's working two jobs. She's frazzled. So what I did was just corrected. This wasn't a challenge of me per se. I think this is a pretty frustrated student who's just at the end of her rope. So I still have beliefs about myself that I'm a good test writer, but now my beliefs about her changed. This isn't a student who's just challenging my authority, this is a student who's tired, frazzled, probably needs a good night's sleep, didn't mean to attack me. So what we're doing together is, a student was asking a professor a question. I can write it off.

Chris Grace: Yeah. That's a great example, Tim, of the way in which we can change how we view another person based upon some of the input that we take in and how we [inaudible 00:06:21]. I love this notion, Tim, about something. A guy did a study recently, in fact, it was a series of researchers. They brought two people into a room, and they allowed them to have a conversation with each other, and they gave him a certain amount of time. They said, "We're going to go and come back in about a half an hour. Here's some questions you can ask each other. But mostly it's just talking. We just want to hear about how your conversation went."

Chris Grace: And then at the end of their time, they'd put them in separate rooms and ask them, "How much did you enjoy your interaction with the other person? How much did you like them and how much do you think the other person enjoyed the interaction, and how much do you think they would report that they liked you?" What was fascinating, Tim, is they discovered something that they had suspected might happen, and that was this thing called the liking gap. Every person that had a conversation would say, "You know what, I really liked that other person, and I liked them and it was fun, and I thought they were really fun and interesting, and I would like to get to know them."

Chris Grace: And then they asked, "Well, what do you think the other person thought about you?" It was pretty clear that almost everybody lowered their estimation of the other person's like of them. That is, they would say, "Well, I really wasn't on my game very well. I really wasn't that funny. I just don't think they liked me that much." The gap between what the other person actually thought about them and what they thought the other person thought about them was this liking gap. It's this great study that came out just this year, a couple of researchers did it, and they said conversations can do that to people, our perceptions, and they were most pointing out to the fact that I now have access to me only in my head what I think about, and I'm pretty hard on myself, and in fact, I fear a little bit maybe of some social rejection or I worry a little bit about the way people might evaluate me, and people are actually liked more than they know, that there's a gap. I think that's interesting. So if I then don't think you liked me as much after all our interaction-

Tim Muehlhoff: Why [crosstalk 00:08:32].

Chris Grace: If I think that, then my reactions and interactions with you are going to be changed by that very perception that I really like them, but I don't think they like me as much. I just think that's a fascinating little study that shows, how do we overcome those things and our view of others, and then how much does that influence our relationships with people?

Tim Muehlhoff: So one thing I love about the definition of the situation, based on everything you just said, is it's really a diagnostic tool for uncovering the thoughts you have about yourself. Imagine I was an insecure test writer, wondering if my tests are very good. Maybe some of my questions aren't very good and a student calls me out on it, I would capitulate in a heartbeat. I'd say, "Yeah, you're right. Sorry. Okay. Throwing away question 13. Everybody gets three points." So I love how it surfaces thoughts you have about yourself, because that's going to color our conversation as much as your perception of another person.

Tim Muehlhoff: You know what you made me think of, Chris, immediately when you were talking about the liking gap? Remember that great commercial, a dove commercial did it, where they brought a man and a woman or two women in, and they would have a conversation with each other. And then they had hired a person who draws, sketch artist, of potential muggers. So here's what they did. Two people would sit next to each other in a waiting room, having a conversation with each other. They'd bring in, let's say the woman, and they would say, "Describe yourself to me." And she would describe herself. He would literally draw her based on her description of herself.

Tim Muehlhoff: Then he'd set aside that picture, grab the guy she had been speaking to, "Come in here, and I want you to describe that woman you had just been talking to," and he describes her. Then Chris, you're shaking your head yes, this was a powerful moment. He shows the woman both pictures. The one that she described herself, the picture was drab and not very attractive. Then he shows her the picture of the guy describing her, and you can just see the life and the vibrancy. So this is exactly what you're saying, is we beat ourselves up in really powerful ways.

Chris Grace: We do. At one time, Tim, we talked about being cognitive misers, and here's what these researchers found, is that conversations can be really cognitively demanding with anybody. But let's suppose it's with a friend, you're sitting there talking, well, there's a lot going on in that situation that requires me to be thinking about. But mostly I'm aware of, "How do I come across, what were my thoughts, was I weird? I should have said it differently. I wished I could've explained it more," so much so that we pay so much attention to that, that we fail to notice the other person's actual nonverbal likes of us, like their smiles and their agreement and they're nodding, and we'd fail to notice that, which means we walk away with a more negative view of what they thought about us.

Chris Grace: I think that's some pretty cool ways in which we can see how this plays out in relationships. How this plays out, where my perceptions are really influenced by what I think going in, that I also don't have access to the other person. I think, Tim, this is where you talk a little bit about something, that I have access to my own thoughts and what I'm like, and I can only pay attention to a certain amount, and I can miss these cues or I can miss these other things. That's where perspective taking helps, is [crosstalk 00:11:47] being able to see from their perspective, which is a lot, what that commercial did.

Tim Muehlhoff: So I've been, for the last year, teaching self defense classes at a domestic violence shelter in Fullerton, California. And we do this thing, I borrowed this from psych as well, called reflected appraisal theory, which means you reflect people's opinion of you, their appraisal of you. So Chris, the way I try to teach these women is, is I took mirrors, handheld mirrors, went out and bought a ton of them from Walmart, and gave each woman a mirror to write down, what are the things that have been said to you by your abuser? Chris, I can't even... It is horrific what those women wrote on those mirrors. Things like, I wish you were dead. Obviously, foul language, you're a rat that needs to be extinguished.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So she's looking at her reflection through those sayings. Now, we also know from John Gottman that there's something called the five to one ratio, which means it takes basically five positive comments to overcome one negative comment. So here's what I did, Chris, I then gave the women five separate mirrors and said, "On each mirror, you are to write one positive thing about yourself." Now, here's what was interesting. One woman couldn't come up with five, she came up with one, that's it. Chris, that's it. So then, we surrounded her, and everybody came up with other ones, and we literally filled those mirrors with... Like, you say hi to everybody when you come to a session, you always bring dessert, you offered me a ride one time.

Tim Muehlhoff: So her looking and thinking, "I can't come up with five," that's because of what we said, the liking gap even, but this is a severe version of it. We need the perspective of other people. When marriage is working, that's what's great about marriage, is your spouse can say, "Hey, I know you got bad news about that promotion, but you just need to know I think you're wildly talented and I really love you." That's powerful reflected appraisal.

Chris Grace: So Tim, there's this idea of reflected appraisal, that we can and get more hopefully accurate information about not just ourselves but the other person as well. And then the situation has a lot to do, of course, with the way in which... how I see this. So your story about, this could've been hostile situation or this could have been something that the person was attacking me and how you interpret that. What else would you say then for couples that are facing this or wanting to know a little bit more about the strength or the goodness of their relationship, let's say, but they have some doubts about it or they worry that maybe the criticism that they see in the other person really isn't as bad as they think? So they start to maybe minimize something that really should be important.

Chris Grace: Let's take that idea, they're dating somebody, and this other person seems to be highly critical of them, saying belittling comments, saying... What would you suggest at that point? Is it they just change their perceptions? Is that they try reanalyze and rethink through what the other person really means by that? Maybe they don't mean, maybe they didn't sleep very well. I've heard so many couples say that, "Well, they kind of say last night not nice things to me, but I don't think it's... I think they just get tired or stressed out or anxious." Tim, there's got to be a point where we do some reality checking, and especially I would wonder if other people are beginning to notice that this other person isn't treating you well. Or if you hear that from others or they start to see this as part of your relationship

Tim Muehlhoff: So I love what you're saying about reality checking. Boy, that's complicated because... Let me finish the rest of the story with that domestic violence shelter thing. So it was a powerful moment when everybody wrote, and she had chance to keep the mirrors. Well afterwards, I'm literally going to my car, and she runs out and grabs me with tears in her eyes and says that she has all those mirrors. She literally said to me, "I don't believe these are true." I looked at her, I was like, "Why?" She said, "I think they were just being nice to me. I think they were taking pity on me." That's a powerful moment, Chris, because what do you say to this woman? You're going to have to make a fundamental decision whether you receive the words that they said to you. Now, only you can do that, and some people would just get stuck.

Tim Muehlhoff: So when you were talking about one person is saying, "I feel like my spouse or my partner says mean things to me," it could be that they are in fact saying mean things. When you hear that, you're like, "Okay dude, you can't say that to a woman." But it could be that even the smallest criticism is being perceived by her as, "You're being mean to me." And it's like, "Wait, that wasn't being mean, that was just offering a critique of something you did. But if I can't do that in a marriage, then what? I'm never allowed to say anything because you interpret that as bullying or?" Man, that's a difficult maze to get out of, and somebody is going to have to fundamentally change their perception of why is it so skewed every time I bring up what I think is a minor thing you interpret it as a major thing? How does a couple break free of that if one person is so stuck in this negative loop?

Chris Grace: I think it's a great question. I just think a lot of people in relationship face this, especially during times of conflict where I'm either feeling it maybe attacked or I'm feeling out of sorts or I'm feeling unheard or not understood and I'm interpreting much of what you say way more negatively, but in reality, it seems pretty negative to a lot of other people, or at least your tone of voice. So Tim, there has to be some suggestions of how do you get out of that maze? So what are the steps that you can take? Obviously, during times of conflict or during times like this, to just go back to the source... First of all, you take a pause, right?

Tim Muehlhoff: Right. Yeah.

Chris Grace: You go and you pray and you get your heart right, and then you start asking, "Or what is it I know about me? But what do I know about the other person? What do I know about who they are, and what is it that has made committed to them? What are the good qualities, and what are some things that I see? And then how do I oftentimes find myself interpreting or misinterpreting in situations like this? So Lord, is this about my heart? 'Search me,' says the Psalmist, 'to know my heart.' Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there's a hurtful way in me. So maybe one of the first steps is, Lord, is this something I'm learning about me? Is this about my perceptions? Is this that I'm seeing them as negative and critical, and can you help me to gauge and decide if this is it?"

Tim Muehlhoff: If Aristotle, were here, which would be amazing, because he's been dead for a long time, but if he were there, he would say this, "All of human communication is predicated on ethos, credibility." So the minute I listen to you, I judge your credibility. I judge it. So to go to your point, if a spouse is praising me, can I receive the praise? I'm going to do it based on your credibility. Because here's what drives me crazy sometimes. We love our wives. But if you say to your wife, "Honey, you're the most beautiful person in the world," it's almost like she dismisses it. Well, it's like you're my husband and you're supposed to say that. See how that works? So you have to step back and say... I love what you said, "Do I trust this person?" That this person will say the hard thing to me, thus they'll say the good thing to me as well.

Tim Muehlhoff: Sometimes you get, you go through seasons of a marriage where that ethos kind of goes up and down sometimes, that credibility waivers. That's why I think it's really good to get a third outside person. That's why good marital counseling sometimes it's just really helpful to have a third party that you trust just to say, "Okay, I didn't interpret that as a negative comment," yet you did. What made it negative? Because it didn't seem to me on face value that it was a negative comment. Or what keeps you from accepting the praise of your children, or the... People have eating disorders, struggle with this all the time, they just can't see themselves in the mirror. They see what people say about thinness and that's what they interpret. So Chris, I think you're right. We're going to have to trust people and we're going to have to trust God's word. God says, "I love you like a daughter, I love you like a son." That God means that. Sometimes people discount that also because-

Chris Grace: I think that's exactly right, Tim. The way in which we find our interpretation of another person or of a situation or even how we're viewed is oftentimes something that can be shaped and hard to break out of. Part of that maze, we've talked about that study that had people wearing a scar, at least they thought they were, on their face and they interacted with other people, and as they did, they felt like once they were wearing this scar, people treated them more coldly, more distant. They weren't as kind or as friendly or they were distracted by the scar.

Chris Grace: When it was revealed that none of them were actually wearing a scar, it was taken off without their awareness, it drew out something very important at that moment, that we use these scars or these filters to perceive other people, and part of breaking out is learning how to have a more accurate understanding of the way in which I hear or see things, the way in which I interpret if people like me or not, or the way in which they're being mean to me or not, or the way in which, is it possible that I'm just misreading what you're saying through this something because I can't hear you right now because this scar is just creating exactly how I interpret you?

Chris Grace: So relationships really get to a point... Tim, I think your analogy of a maze, how do you break out, how do you stop this? One of that, again, is just asking God, "God, help me to see who I am in your eyes, why you want me in this relationship, why this relationship is important and what this other person is like in your eyes, and help me to have a better, clearer, more accurate picture of them and me and my heart."

Tim Muehlhoff: A great practical application of this came at the hands of my dissertation director, Dr. Julia Wood. I was just about to graduate with my PhD, and we had submitted a journal article together. You know, Chris, how hard journal articles are to get accepted. It's crazy difficult, less than 8% get accepted. So we got accepted, mostly on her name, I'm sure. But we got accepted, and here's what she did, she gave me the acceptance letter. She said, "Tim, I want you to do this. I want you to take a box, and I want you to keep this box, and every good thing that happens, you put it in this box." Because guess what Tim, we don't always get accepted for journal articles. A lot of nos are probably in the future, and that you just set them aside and you open up your good box every once in a while and you read about the acceptance or a really kind comment a student made, because guess what, students can make really unkind comments, especially on

Tim Muehlhoff: So she, "Said keep a box." I think that's great, to have a box, kind things your kids said, kind things your husband said, your wife said, a pastor said, a friend said, and keep that box because you're going to question it. There's going to be ups and downs, and even what St. John of the cross calls a dark night of the soul where you can't even see up from down. That box could become very important.

Chris Grace: I think, Tim, for believers, a lot of that is this idea of a gratitude or Thanksgiving list, right? That box is this outward manifestation or symbol for the ways in which our heart feels gratitude for what we have. So gratitude has that huge ability for us of refocusing us, getting us back to a point where we recognize what we have and some of the awesome things that we take for granted and then can become resentful for things or focus on the wrong things. That's a cool way to see something in a new light through a heart of gratitude.

Tim Muehlhoff: Check out past podcasts. We've done gratitude as a huge topic, and it's so important. For example, obviously, this isn't visual, we just have audio, but as we were doing this podcast, Chris slid me a note that simply said, "You carried me this entire podcast. Thank you. You're brilliant." I'm going to take that and put it into my good comment box. So Chris, I just want to say, you're welcome. Sometimes you just have to do the heavy lifting, but [crosstalk 00:24:40]. Wait, I'm getting another note. Oh my.

Chris Grace: I actually have these pre-printed. I think I gave you the wrong one, but you know what, was a good mistake, so I'm really glad I did that actually. Wow, that was weird. All right Tim. Hey, let's talk some more about this later on. It's good visiting with you.

Tim Muehlhoff: All right, man. Bye.

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