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Heidi Grant Halvorson: Why No One Understands You (and What To Do About It)

About this talk

Ever get the feeling you and a client or colleague are just talking past one another? Miscommunication and misunderstandings are one of the biggest culprits of career acrimony. That’s why, in this talk, researcher and author Heidi Grant Halvorson shares how we can get out of our own minds and make sure our message is heard. Using research from her latest book, Halvorson demonstrates the importance of overcoming the assumption of false consensus, and how subtle cues like eye contact and nodding can make all the difference. 

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Associate Director, Columbia University Motivation Science Center

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center, and a popular blogger for HBR, Fast Company, Huffington PostForbes, WSJ, and 99U. As a researcher, she studies goal pursuit, the obstacles that derail us, and the strategies we can use to overcome them. Her latest book is FOCUS: Using Different Ways of Seeing The World for Success and Influence.


Full Transcript

So, as Scott said, I’m sort of interested in this question of how it is we can better come across the way we intend to with other people. And it’s really one of the key things in collaborating, or in leading. You need to come across the way you intend to. The bad news is we don’t do it nearly as often as we think we do.

I mean, everybody in this room knows what it’s like to not come across the way you meant, to make a bad first impression. The reality is we’re actually doing it a lot more than we think. And no one is immune to this. In fact, even presidents are not immune. In fact, actually sometimes it seems they’re particularly likely to not come across the way they intend to. And here’s one of my favorite examples.

Here’s a photo of George Bush at a G8 Summit there with Angela Merkel and some of the other G8 leaders. And, you know, it’s stressful. They’re working together, a lot of tough issues on the table. And I guess at some point, President Bush felt that Angela Merkel looked like she needed a back rub. And so you can see the play by play here of how that went. Here she is actually at the moment she realizes she’s being rubbed. Here she is actually physically shaking him off. And, of course, the German press went crazy. This is so patronizing. It’s obviously sort of sexist. I mean, he’s probably not rubbing Tony Blair, or Putin, or any of those other people. And I guess don’t rub Angela Merkel was something he needed to be told in advance. Most of us just sort of know that. But, you know, he’s not exactly my favorite person. But I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say, you know, he didn’t intend to be just chauvinist or patronizing. He honestly probably was just trying to be nice and give someone a back rub.

And this is the kind of thing that happens altogether too often. We don’t come across the way we intend. Our intentions aren’t clear to other people. And each of us knows what this is like. We’ve all had the experience other people are really just not getting us– particularly troubling when it’s your colleagues or the people that work for you.

Now, why does that happen? Why is it so hard for people to understand us?

In large part, it’s because you’re a lot harder to understand than you think you are. Most of us sort of walk around assuming that we’re kind of an open book. And it’s obvious what we’re thinking and feeling. And, really, nothing could be further from the truth. And to really make sense of it, you can see it if you really break it down into the information you have about you and the information other people have about you, and you look at it play by play.

So, for example, your intentions– you know what they are. Other people do not. They don’t have access to that. They have to guess. Your thoughts– advances in neuroscientist notwithstanding, nobody’s looking in your head anytime soon. So other people don’t know what you’re thinking. You might tell them. But most of the time we don’t. Your feelings– again, you know what they are. Other people do not. But what about being able to read feelings on your face? Well, that’s a funny one, because, yes, people have access to what you’re doing with your face, and generally you do not. And that can be a real problem, actually, because we don’t know what we’re doing with our faces. And, in fact, actually faces are very, very hard to read. With the exception of the major strong emotions like anxiety, disgust, profound sadness, it turns out that the face you’re making when you’re not at all hurt by what I just said looks a lot like the face you make when you are in fact hurt by what I just said. And it’s really, really hard for other people to tell what your face is doing, and what that relationship is to what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Your body language– again, other people definitely notice this, largely unconsciously. But you have– you might know what you’re doing. You can kind of cultivate awareness of what you do with your body. But most of us really have no idea what we’re doing with our bodies. So we are sending very clear signals with our body language. And most of the time we don’t know we’re doing it. OK, what about your behavior? Yes, you have access to that. And, yes, sort of– this gets an asterisk– other people have access to your behavior, and also what you say. But there’s little asterisks there for a reason. And that is, first of all, they have to actually be paying attention to your behavior and paying attention to what you say, which is kind of a big assumption to make that other people are actually doing that. But more than that, it’s important to realize that all actions, and all words, really are open to interpretation. There’s really many meanings to the things was we say. And so we have a tendency to feel like beauty is in the perceiver. And that’s true, by the way. But what’s really true is everything is. Everything is in the eye of the perceiver. Everything is given meaning by the person who’s trying to understand you.

We have, I think our gut feeling about perception, or sort of the assumption we run around with, is that basically other people’s impression of us and the way they understand us is that they look at what we do and say. And then that maps on directly to how they see us. No, that’s not how it works. They look at what we do and say. They pay attention to some of what we do and say. And then they interpret that. And then that’s what they think of us. Now, to really get, then, why we don’t come across the way we intend to, we need to understand what’s happening in that interpretation box. And it turns out lots of things are happening in the interpretation box. So, yes– again, asterisks– your words, and actions, the ones they pay attention to, that goes into the interpretation. So does a bunch of things that are happening completely automatically and non-consciously, like stereotypes about the groups to which you belong, and different kinds of assumptions that we tend to make about people in general.

One of the scarier things we’ve learned in research on person perception in the last 20 years is that, actually, you don’t have to agree with a stereotype to be affected by it. Again, it’s happening completely unconsciously, and relatively automatically. So people kind of know something about you. And then they’re filling in a lot of the blanks with other stuff. And they don’t really know that they’re doing it. Assumptions– what kind of assumptions do people make about you? There’s a couple that are kind of amusing. One is the assumption of false consensus, which is, in general, we assume that our beliefs and preferences are shared by lots and lots of other people, because we think our beliefs and preferences are right. So this is why– you know, you ever turn on the TV, and someone who belongs to this really fringe like radical political group says, you know, well, the American people want x. And you’re like, you are not the American people. You are a fringe radical group. But they think they are. They think that everybody agrees with them. So Democrats tend to think that there are more Democrats than there actually are. And Republicans think there are more Republicans. And if you like chocolate ice cream, you think that more people like chocolate ice cream than actually do, because we think that our beliefs and our preferences are right. So everybody else must degree. Except for where it comes to our good qualities. Those we think are unique. Sort of like, everybody thinks they’re a better than average driver. My favorite example of false– this is called false uniqueness. So when it comes to your goodness, you think other people are less likely to be good in the ways that you are. And my favorite example of this is from a 1980 survey of Americans asking them, first, do you follow the Ten Commandments? For each commandment, which one do you follow or not, do you obey it? And then what percentage of Americans do you think also obeys this commandment? Here’s a real eye-opening one. I honestly thought that would be higher. 91% of Americans do not commit murder, OK. And, like, 64% percent say they don’t use profanity– lie, that’s not true. But anyway, look at number. So this is how many people say, I obey this commandment. And then this is how many people say, this is what they think the average Americans do. So they think 29% of us are out there killing people when it’s only nine, actually. So, you know, you’re not killing people is not all that special as you think it is. But, anyway, this is sort o fun example. So what else goes in there? Stereotypes, assumptions, also past experience with you. Now, this actually makes sense. If I’m trying to understand your behavior then it makes sense that I use my past experience with you to understand what you’re doing. So if you make a joke that’s a little bit slightly offensive, but I have a history with you, and I know that you’re a jokester, and that generally you’re a person with kind of good intentions then I’m less likely to be offended by it. I’m likely to interpret it in that lens. So in a way, what it’s like, OK, fine, so we use past behavior to explain other people. But the problem there is that what is that past experience was sort of wrong or not really representative of you. This is that whole first impressions mattering a lot kind of thing, where if someone gets the wrong first impression of you they tend to then use that– again, not consciously, people aren’t trying to be jerks, but their brains are wired this way, to use that first impression to then understand everything else you do through the lens of that impression. So that, obviously, creates problems when we don’t make the right impression from the get go, when we don’t come across the way we intend. What else goes in here? Stuff about them, nothing to do with you, their own baggage, their own issues, their own past experiences. All of those things color how they see you, nothing you can do about that. Context– now, that’s good. You want people to take into account context. If you’re really crabby because you have a lot of stuff going on, you want people to take that into account and not just conclude that you’re a jerk. But, oh, you know, they’re under a lot of pressure. They’ve got a lot of stuff going on. The problem with context, though, is that brains in general do not take context into account unless they have a lot of time and they’re really motivated to do so. Your perceiver is not going to work that hard to understand you most of the time. So a lot of times, we don’t actually take context into account when we understand other people. And we just think, oh, so-and-so’s a jerk, or so-and-so is this or that, without really thinking about the situation in which their behavior occurred in. So that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings, and again not coming across the way you intend. So it’s a big problem. I’m not going to lie. It’s a big problem. And it’s a problem for all of us. I don’t know what your colleagues and your employees think of you. But I know that you don’t know either, because it’s really that kind of a problem. You may have a sense of it. But, really, I promise you there are some surprises there. One of the questions I get asked a lot is, so, what do I do? I mean, how do I know how I’m coming across to other people, if you’re telling me that I don’t know? I do have a favorite question for that that you can ask. What you have to do is find someone that you’ve known for awhile who you really trust to tell you an honest answer, and ask them to complete this sentence. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were, blank. And don’t get mad at them for what they say. But it’s a really great way to find out. Like, if I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were kind of arrogant. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think that you weren’t that bright, frankly. If I didn’t know– you hear some surprising stuff. And, yet, it’s a really, really great source of information, because to really understand to solve the problem of coming across the way you intend, you really need to start by saying, OK, how am I actually coming across? And, in general, people don’t know how they’re coming across. So get that information. I want to also give you some really specific kinds of things that you can do. The good news when it comes to perception is that even though people are wrong about us a lot of the time, they’re not randomly wrong. They’re predictably wrong. We know a lot about what kinds of signals you can send to come across a certain way, and when you don’t send those signals, what happens. And so you can kind of think of it as your job, if you want to be understood by other people, is there’s the signal that you’re trying to send. And there’s a lot of noise, which I just showed you, all that other stuff– assumptions, and stereotypes, and their past experience, and so on. And you want to amplify the signal so that it gets caught, like the person can actually attend to it with all the noise that’s going on. So I’m going to give you some very specific ways to send the right signal in a lot of the situations that come up very commonly when you’re either trying to collaborate or you’re trying to lead a team. And I talk about these as these three lenses of perception, these three particular kind of lenses that people look through in certain situations that shape how they see us, and what you need to do to send the right impression through each lens. The first is the trust lens. This is happening basically all the time. We’re wired to be asking ourselves the question, can I trust you, of everybody in our lives. Again, this is one of these survival things. Our brains are not very different from when we were hunter gatherers, and really kind of figuring out, are you a friend or a foe? Are you going to help me or are you going to kill me? Was really important every day, and our brains are still essentially wired to do that. So being able to come across as trustworthy is essential. Then there’s the power lens– what happens when people are in a position of power relative to you– and the ego lens– what happens when you’re collaborating with other people, and you’re successful, and how that affects them. So the trust lens happens when people are not sure if you’re a friend or a foe. And the answer to that question is determined by your ability to project two qualities– competence and warmth. The problem, of course, is that we mostly try to project competence. We’re trying to show other people how smart we are. And we forget to project warmth. But you need both of those to be trusted. And like almost every other psychological concept in the world, I can illustrate this with “The Simpsons.” So you want to be Lisa. Lisa is warm and competent. You know that she has good intentions toward you. That’s the warmth part. And you know that she can act on those intentions. That’s the competent part. But if you fail to send signals of warmth and you just send competence, then you’re going to come across as competent and cold. And then you are Mr. Burns. And so then you actively distrusted. People will feel like, I can’t count on you to have my back. Just in case you’re curious about the other two cells, if you come across as warm but incompetent, then you’re Homer. People who are warm and incompetent are pitied, generally. And if you come across as incompetent and cold, you’re Mo. People who are incompetent and cold are sort of figures of disgust. And we try to avoid them essentially. But this is really important. Everybody in this room probably knows how to come across as competent. But you don’t know whether you’re coming across as warm. So let me give you some things that you can do to make sure you come across as warm. OK, maintain eye contact people. I just can’t say this enough times, and especially when the other person is talking. In this day and age, we are so looking at our phones. And now we’re going to have watches and stuff to look at. And it’s like more and more, we’re not looking at people when they’re talking to us. Look at people when they’re talking to you. That’s a very clear indicator of warmth. Smilinh– not like an idiot, don’t smile all the time. But smile when people smile at you. That is really– like, if you don’t smile the rest of the time, fine. But smile when someone smiles at you. That’s really, really cold if you they smile at you and you don’t smile back. Nod, again– not like crazy, but when other people are talking, you know, you do the thing at the end where you go, huh, like that. It turns out that’s really important. If you don’t nod at the end of sentences, people don’t feel like you’re listening, don’t feel like you’re understanding. It’s a little affirmation, like, oh, yeah. So that’s important. Ask people if you do these things. Ask someone you trust, because it’s very common that people will say like, oh, yeah, I do all of that stuff. And you don’t, actually. So ask someone you just trust, do I maintain eye contact? Do I do the nod? And really work on this. And then, of course, actually listen. That’s really important. And be affirming– not in a Stuart Smalley creepy way, but like sort of when someone says something, you say, like, oh, that’s great. Or, oh, I understand. Be empathetic. Take a moment to express concern with people. And it goes a long way to establishing trust. OK, then there’s the power lens. Here’s the problem with power. We know that– and it’s not that powerful people are evil. But power does actually do some funny stuff to brains. And one of the things that power does is really narrows people’s focus of attention so that when you’re in a position of power you tend to see everybody the same way. You tend to rely on stereotypes and assumptions even more. You pay less attention to the relatively powerless. You’re not really individuating them, understanding their unique gifts and contributions. You just sort of see them as all the same. In fairness, part of that is because you’ve got a lot to do. Usually powerful people have a lot going on. So in order to really get their attention, to become that pencil that actually the powerful person notices, what do you have to do? The answer is a little bit surprising. You might think, well, ingratiation. This is what people always do with powerful people. They flatter them. Nope, that’s not it. Powerful people don’t care if you think they’re awesome. They think they’re awesome. That’s enough. They don’t need you. Doing a great job– right, if I do my job really, really well, that will get the powerful person’s attention? No, it won’t. That will not help you. What you need to do is actually figure out what their goals are, and then show them that you can help them reach their goals. In other words, this is how I can help you, powerful person, get from A to B. So it’s worth figuring out, the powerful person in your life, what is that they are trying to do? What are their goals? Where do they align with mine? And how can I really kind of be in their face about how I can be instrumental for them? That is what will get you a powerful person’s attention. Then, suddenly, they zero in on you because you are worth understanding, and knowing, and being accurate about. OK, and finally the last lens is the ego lens. And this really has to do with the fact that most of us, in many of our jobs, are working with people who are doing very similar work. And what happens when you actually do really well, and you have a success? Well, the answer is often you’re actually– that success is threatening to the people around you on a very unconscious level. They don’t necessarily wouldn’t articulate it that way. But we know that it can be. And, again, whether or not your success is threatening to the people around you is predicted by, again, two factors. The first is relevance. So is your success happening in an area that that person also wants to be successful in? And closeness– is this someone you have to see a lot? They’re in your life a lot, you kind of can’t ignore them. Now, when you have high relevance and high closeness, there’s the potential for high threat when you are successful for someone else. To give you an example of that– because I just can’t put his picture up there enough times apparently– there’s the Bush brothers, who apparently don’t actually talk much. And, again, they’re an example of high threat. They’re close by virtue of the fact that their brothers. And they’re both trying to be successful in the same domain– politics. So there’s real potential for one of their successes to be threatening to the other person. If you have more moderate threats– if you have relevance but less closeness, if you can kind of not have to deal with that person all that much– so, for example– can’t help myself. There’s some relevance there. They both were leaders of countries. But they don’t really have to deal with each other all the time. So there’s only moderate threat there. Low threats, and really the ideal scenario, is when you have closeness but low relevance. In other words, you’re successful in something that I don’t care about being successful in. But you and I are close. And then I can enjoy that. Fun fact, if you don’t remember anything else from today, you can amuse people at cocktail parties with Ira Glass is cousins with Philip Glass. I know, right? Fun. So Ira Glass the radio personality, Philip Glass the composer are cousins– two totally different domains. So they can enjoy the awesomeness of being a Glass without threatening one another. And, of course, if you have both low relevance and low closeness, then there’s no threat. I don’t think Ira Glass– I don’t think he actually rode the bear. I’m pretty sure that’s Photoshop. But I just like it so much. So how do we deal with that? We deal with it by– you can think of the problem as being, we’re too comparable. We’re both apples. What do we do? Well, you can deal with it by decreasing relevance– so become an apple and an orange. This is what a lot of siblings do in order to still get along, is they kind of gravitate toward doing different things. The most famous example might be the Emmanuel brothers– Rom the politician, Ezekiel the doctor, and Ari the Hollywood agent are all successful in different areas. So it’s not totally comparable. The other thing you can do is decrease closeness. Get away from the other person, essentially. That’s mostly what those guys did for most of their lives. They just sort of didn’t really hang out together. And by decreasing closeness, they decreased the threat. But when neither of those things are possible– you have to work with these other people. You’re successful in the thing that they want to be successful in as well. Then what might very well happen here is that they’re only option left is to see you negatively, to kind of take you down a notch, see you as a crappy apple with a worm in it. And then they feel better about themselves that you’re so successful and maybe they’re not. So how do you keep this from happening? Because this is really the source of tension in collaboration. And the way you keep this from happening is that you create a sense of us. And instead of being my apple is better than your apple, you say, we’re just the best damn basket of apples out there, aren’t we? Our basket is so awesome. And successful teams, and successful companies, do this by creating identities and shared goals where everybody feels like a win for one of us is a win for all of us. And there are other famous examples of this, like the Williams sisters, who should be a high threat scenario, but actually they seem to feel like a win for one Williams is a win for the Williams family. And so they end up being actually very, very close despite the high relevance of what they do. So, in conclusion, let me just sum this up with these three things I want you to remember, besides the thing about Ira Glass and Philip Glass. It’s essential to establish trust both with your colleagues and collaborators, and with your clients, and with the people that you’re trying to lead. And to do that, project warmth and competence. Don’t forget the warm. It’s absolutely essential. Or you’re Mr. Burns. Get attention from powerful people, including clients, by being instrumental. Don’t tell them how well you do your job. Tell them how well you’re going to help them do theirs. That’s what’s key. And then, finally, to be awesome and likable at the same time, go out of your way to create a sense of us– to enjoy other people’s success so that they feel that there’s a community kind of going on, and they can also afford to enjoy your successes as well. And if you want to learn more about this stuff, here’s my book. OK, thank you all so much for your time. [APPLAUSE]

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