One of the most unrecognized patterns by the general population, and even unwittingly by most therapists, that causes suffering, especially in love relationships, is when one partner or party views and experiences the other’s “perceptions” as “judgments.”
Let me explain this with a quick example — You might say to your partner in a neutral or even caring tone, “I think that you might want to call the kids more often.” While this might be said as a perception with good intent, your partner might internally be feeling guilty, withdrawn or angry at their kids and could hear that perception as a judgment because that’s the way they’re feeling themselves. The message might be heard as “You are really negligent for not keeping in touch with your kids.” This could then frequently lead to a fight where the partner will come back and say something like, “Stop bugging me about the kids. I’ll take care of it the way I want to.” Even if this was the first time this topic was mentioned.
If misunderstandings like this continue, it can lead to an assumption of bad will in both partners’ inner experiences and attitudes towards one another. In turn, this feeling can lead to recurring fights about the same subject and others.
Turning perceptions into judgments is one of the least understood dynamics in communication, and is a real source of loss of intimacy, trust and compatibility.
Healing alternatives to misunderstanding perceptions as judgments
Misunderstanding perceptions has repercussions in both your personal life and in the wider world. It’s important to break this down so we can properly understand and learn how to work things out in a clearer way, one that helps us move toward healing.
Two ways to look inward and help you get through these misunderstandings:
- Take a closer look at your relationships, including your personal, business or professional ones. See if you can spot instances where you either were misheard in this way or you may have misunderstood the other’s intent and gotten defensive. It can be as simple as saying or hearing “Don’t forget to take a bath before bed.” From one person’s perspective, it’s a gentle reminder; from the other’s an attack on their hygiene.
Can you see how illuminating it could be in the future to double-check when you might feel judged and ask, “Did you mean that as a judgment or just a sincere observation, perception, or desire?
Of course, when you ask that question you want to make sure that you aren’t accusatory in the way you ask. The way toward healing and understanding is to take care in the way you say things and in the way you hear them — something very subtle in practice. This would be a major transformation in most relationships.
- It is also helpful to be able to identify areas where you are vulnerable or insecure. These areas are where you might be most prone to mishearing perceptions as judgments. You would be likely to hear your own judgments and imagine it is coming from the other.
Of course, things aren’t always black and white. It is most helpful if we can see this on a continuum where it may be tinged with a bit of judgment from either you or the other, but is mostly a perception, and it is sometimes heard as a major judgment.
We all need to take a careful look at how this greater reflection can build healing and healthy relationships or make them much more volatile. Either of those outcomes depends on noticing this all too frequent human tendency to disown our own judgments and think it’s coming from the other or not notice that the other is making judgments, yet we are reacting negatively without knowing why.
In almost 50 years of counseling, the tendency of misunderstanding perceptions as judgments and the underestimated power of tone of voice are two of the major ways that miscommunication occurs. Paying closer attention to the details of your own feelings and precisely hearing intention from both you and the other will take us a long way in being able to support intimacy, trust and understanding.
The real-life dangers of hearing perceptions as judgments
Patience and openness toward how we might misunderstand are not immediately obvious very often for many of us — it takes time to see our own defensiveness or how we unwittingly are more judgmental than we realized. In fact, here’s an example from my own life that truly showed me the danger of hearing perceptions as judgments:
I remember a time with my ex-wife, where I’d said to her, “Would you please join me and help both of us communicate when either one of us feels that anger has arisen? Let’s give each other a chance to acknowledge that we have some anger and do our best to share our needs that are buried underneath?” I tried to share what I needed in a sincere way, to the best of my awareness.
But what she heard was “You’re the problem that is causing our anger and I’m tired of you blaming me for what is your problem.” And what she actually said was, “I am tired of you assessing me and blaming me for your anger problem.You bring us into gridlock by the way you continue to assess me.”
To that, I replied, “No, no, I promise you I am trying to just have us both share responsibility for not being able to directly express our needs and take time to reflect on the real meaning that each of us has. I’m doing my best to have both of us own our anger and create the opportunity to both share and listen to both of our needs.” I truly wanted her to know where I was coming from — and not let misunderstanding get in the way of clarity.
Our issues with communication and hearing became a pattern, and it became clear that perceptions were being perceived as judgments — something that virtually all of us experience in our own lives. This makes it impossible to find a peaceful, satisfying way to communicate until both sides have enough goodwill to keep reflecting until the real intentions are exposed and expressed sensitively. Only then would this help us both hear perceptions as perceptions, and in this particular situation, I made a request that was part of the perception.
My ex-wife and I went through a journey of being able to sit together and really discover what we each needed. I remember once we had a breakthrough where we each said what we needed — it was such a deep relief because we were able to be more sensitive both in our words; we even softened our tone of voice. We each needed the other to be more gentle, and ask for what we needed instead of believing that we were being judged. When the magic words were said with a kind tone, “I really want you to be more gentle as you speak to me, especially when we talk about our kids,” it led to us uniting in a way that was quite moving. This allowed us to connect better and really set the stage to progress in a major way in our relationship.
However, this was hardly a one and done problem. In spite of our progress, these misunderstandings happened less frequently but continued. Even though it wasn’t the reason for our divorce, it did contribute towards it. But it was a period of major learning for me for future relationships of all kinds. Communication became a lot easier when it was clear how vital it was to reach a place where both my intentions and those of my partner needed to be conveyed, trusted and understood as perceptions and not as judgments.
Realizing that you or someone you love might be prone to hearing perceptions as judgments can be one of those ‘epiphany’ moments. Like my ex-wife and I, once it’s been pointed out to you, this realization can go a long way — in helping you listen more carefully to the real intent, and when in doubt checking it out more and more sensitively.
Questions to ask to strengthen your relationships
Ask yourself, “What is the most dominant way that I have taken what has been said to me as a sincere perception as a judgment?” In retrospect, can you see that you unwittingly exaggerated the perception into a judgment, because it was a sensitive subject for you?
It is incredibly helpful for you to also ask yourself, “When did I share a perception with someone in the past that they misunderstood and they very likely thought I was being judgmental?” This tracking of the need for all of us to review challenging conversations can help us immensely in our present and future relationships.
In the past, it is very likely that you may have never been able to comprehend why there were sustained conflicts, and understanding that it’s probable that often one or the other of you (or perhaps both) heard various statements as judgments is an immensely helpful insight. This insight is one that I carry with me as a counselor and as a person as I see it being played out almost daily between my extended personal life, friendships, and clients.
More importantly, because this article isn’t meant to be about me, think about times when you have felt the most judged or unseen by another? But the other party surprisingly acts as though they were being judged instead? Thinking a bit longer about the reason for their reactions and yours can give you an insight into how you were being misunderstood or misheard.
It is a relatively easy insight to have to reapproach a partner or friend and have a clarification of intention. It may be that this might not be enough in and of itself and might require some persistence and reassurance. The people that have taken this insight of the confusion between perceptions and judgments and applied it to their own lives have improved their capacity and experience of intimacy and communication manyfold.
This pattern of hearing perceptions as judgments is almost universal, so if at first glance it doesn’t seem to apply to you, I would encourage more contemplation.
There is only a small percentage of people to whom this doesn’t apply simply because they are more comfortable with playing a more subordinate role in relationships. I hope that this kernel of communication is one that will help you see and stop sources of potential conflict for you before it arises.
To me and in my practice, this understanding is one of the golden keys to deepening intimacy and has the potential of stopping conflicts with the grounding and practice of this insight.