The power of perception, how our assumptions can shape our behaviours.

I had an interesting experience today whilst writing another blog. It lead me into thinking about how assumptions or perceptions shape our behaviors. How does context, framing and clarity provide us with a method to stop us getting it so wrong?

We are hardwired to make quick assumptions. It's what stopped us getting eaten by Sabre-toothed tigers all those years ago... But now we are in a constant wrangle with our caveman brains to adapt to modern life. How does making an assumption, or forming a perception serve us? And when does it trip is up?

We've all been there "I didn't mean my email to come across like that". Even if you are a communication supremo you can bet you will still find someone else's assumptions affecting your message.

What they hear is not always what you say

I have a terrible habit of saying things that have the most ridiculous, carry-on style double-meanings. Stood in front of the entire company before a briefing I once asked everyone to "hold on whilst I grab my bits". But over time I've come to realise that we help people build their assumptions with the context we give them. Now, if I'd stayed stony-faced I might, just might, have kept my dignity in tact at that briefing. But I turned red, had a muffled giggle and, as such, gave everyone the comedy context they needed to assume I was being cheeky.

Take the context test

Look at this picture of a magical fairy wood at dawn... how do you feel?


Now take a look at this creepy picture of a woodland from a horror movie as evening approaches, what feelings do you get?


Is this woman relaxing in the sunshine, or feeling depressed?

This is what I learned today whilst searching images. The context of my search totally changed my perception of the images I was looking at. That's the same in the real world.


We frame people and events with us as the centre point of reference. We are all the stars in our own story. Is my colleague tapping the desk to annoy me? No, they are just in the groove with their music. Is that women frowning at me because she doesn't like me? No, she's been on her feet all day and she's hurting.

The first step in not letting assumptions get the better of us is to recognise our frames of reference.

  1. Know you do it (we all do, no exceptions!)

  2. Understand it, is it self-deprecating, confident, cynical, optimistic... You'll spot it easier the more you know it

  3. Catch it. Recognise (in those important moments) when your frame is changing the facts about your situation. Catch it, stop it, re-think it.


The power of gaining clarity is often underestimated. If you are able, to clearly and openly ask what someone means, what they want or what they expect from you then you are most of the way there.

Be open, ask without prejudice and really, I mean really, listen.

Sounds simple and I suppose it is, but it's also so bloomin' effective. Don't take anything for granted, especially in high priority moments, in the boardroom, with your spouse, or kids, or an emotional colleague. Take time out if you need to. Everyone will be better off for it.

Kelly Herrick is a coach & collaborator who helps people access more freedom & joy. She is also the strategic lead in an international design agency, a painter and mum of two boys.

Please get in touch and let me know your thoughts. You can find me on Facebook or Instagram at @iamkellyherrick. Or through the website

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