Posts tagged “empathy

Perceptions as Portraits, not Photographs

I do a lot of my reading on my iPad. Books that I am reading or continuing to re-read I keep on my main iBooks screen. I have created a folder for Finished Fiction and another one for Finished Non-Fiction. Usually when I finish a book I move it to one of those folders. In a few cases, though, even after finishing a book I leave it on my main screen, since I know I will be going back to it again and again. Such is the case with Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006). More than his funny, even irreverent, style of writing, I am drawn to the amazing research studies to which he refers and bases his points. This research points to the incredible complexity of human beings and the processes that affect our thinking and behavior, a complexity ultimately anchored and intertwined in choice.



According to Choice Theory, people are always in the process of creating and monitoring their view of reality. A person’s view of reality has a great deal to do with how she relates to others and especially how she values her own status. This view affects how events are interpreted. Our personal view of reality is a big deal.

It is on that word personal, at least when it comes to their view of reality, that many stumble and eventually disagree. We see with our eyes what is and we hear with our ears what is – and that means, we figure, that we know what is. Previous posts have commented on the frustrations, and even dangers, of this way of thinking. (e.g. – Three Types of People – Awesome, Dangerous, and Run and Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian?) Is it possible that what we see and hear is somehow different than what we see and hear?

A portrait, not a photograph, of John Locke.

Immanuel Kant, showing off the look of the day. What keeps this hair from coming back into vogue?

Given that Solomon was right when he said that “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Eccl. 1:9) Stumbling on Happiness reminds us that the argument over how we perceive reality has been around for some time. John Locke, English philosopher of the Enlightenment and regarded as the Father of Liberalism, described the theory of realism in 1690, which explained that our senses confirm that things exist and that this existence produces an idea that we then perceive. Almost a hundred years later Immanuel Kant threw that way of thinking out the door. His theory of idealism in 1781, instead described a multi-faceted process through which a person’s picture of reality is created. An excerpt from Stumbling on Happiness says it best –

Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality. “The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing,” Kant wrote. “Only through their union can knowledge arise.” The historian Will Durant performed the remarkable feat of summarizing Kant’s point in a single sentence: “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost—one might say—a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.”

I think Gilbert summarized the centuries-old argument even better when he wrote that “Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.”

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs.


Locke believed the eyes and the mind combined to produce a photograph, a perfect replica of reality, whereas Kant believed the eyes, and all the other senses, combined with the mind to create a painting of reality that represents sometimes our best guess, sometimes a deep need or want, but always a reality that is meaningful to us and that makes sense. The research in Stumbling on Happiness reveals that Kant was right. The ideas of Choice Theory certainly affirm the accuracy of perceptions as portraits.

Whether we view our perceptions as photographs or portraits is a big deal! It’s a big deal when it comes to our mental health, primarily because it’s a big deal in our relationships. Of course, how we perceive reality affects all aspects of our behavior, including how we vote politically, how we drive a car at rush hour, how we manage children and students, how we see gun control, and how we worship, to name just a few. If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality, like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently. The photograph in our head confirms our rightness; there is no need to talk about differences, other than to inform the other person of their being wrong. Such a view, as you might guess, leads to a narrow, locked-in mentality and hurts relationships in the process.

If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality,
like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about
when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently.

Being able to recognize our own role in forming our picture of reality creates a healthy freedom that allows us to learn from changing circumstances, especially when it comes to communicating with those whom we love. We allow that we don’t know everything and that we are open to new information. Because of seeing reality as a portrait we are constantly in the process of painting and modifying, we are more able to accept and respect the knowledge and views of others. This perspective skill set is one of the keys to empathy, which is a powerful piece of mental health and a huge piece in healthy relationships.

We do our children and students a big favor when we teach them about how we each paint a portrait of the world as we see it. Such knowledge allows for growth (mindset) and prepares the way for positive relationships in the future.

If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to check out Stumbling on Happiness. It is an enjoyable read that is chock full of insight.


Such as are your habitual thoughts;
such also will be the character of your mind;
for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius


Listening to Understand


We may not have ears as big as Abby's, but we still concentrate on really listening to the person talking to us.

We may not have ears as big as Abby’s, but we still concentrate on really listening to the person talking to us.

One of the things I like on Facebook are the concise, insightful quotes and statements that friends share. The quotes often pack a lot of wisdom into a small amount of space. An example of such a quote was recently posted by Maureen Craig McIntosh, a Glasser faculty member from New Brunswick. It read –

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.

Most of us quickly recognize truth in this statement, but don’t let quick agreement cause you to miss some of the deeper truths it contains. An experienced Glasser trainer thought enough of the statement to pass it on to us. What are the choice theory implications of listening to understand? Let’s identify a few –

1. One of the reasons we are quick to reply, rather than listen, is that we think we know what’s best for others. As soon as we hear the problem, we want to let others know about our solution.

2. More than simply wanting to share a solution, another reason we are quick to reply is that we may want to control the person who is talking to us. This can be especially true if the person is one of our children, or a spouse, or one of our students.

3. One of the most need-satisfying things we can do for another person is to truly listen to what he/she is trying to say. Active listening can assist another person in problem-solving for himself, which honors the choice theory axiom that the only person I can control is me.

Billy Joel sang about a New York state of mind; it would seem the idea of listening to understand or listening to reply involves a state of mind, too. Fortunately, a state of mind is something we can influence, a lot. We can choose to concentrate on listening more and talking less. One of Covey’s famous 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”


Classroom Application

Listening to reply –

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess today.

Teacher: What? What are you talking about?

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess. I just want to stay inside the classroom.

Teacher: That’s ridiculous! You’re coming outside. I can’t have kids all over the place.

Listening to understand –

Student: I don’t want to go out to recess today.

Teacher: I think that might be a first for you. You really don’t want to go outside?

Student: No, I just want to stay in the classroom.

Teacher: Can you tell me what it’s about? Are you not feeling well?

Student: I guess I feel ok; I just want to hang out in here.

Teacher: You know, it felt a little bit like something was troubling you when you came in the classroom at the start of school this morning.

Student: (shrugs)

Teacher: Would you be willing to come outside and hang out with me as I supervise the playground? If you’re ok with talking about it, I would like to hear what you’re thinking this morning. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s ok, too. And if you don’t want to hang out with me at all, you can sit on the bench outside of the classroom. I’m ok with that. Would either of those options work for you?

Student: (smaller shrug) Yeh, I guess I could hang out with you. That’d be ok.

Home Application

Listening to reply –

Wife: I got offered a promotion today at work.

Husband: Wow! Way to go!

Wife: Yeh, I probably should be excited, but I just . . . I don’t know.

Husband: What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve earned it. Ya gotta go for it! I assume there would be a raise and we definitely could use the money.

Listening to understand –

Wife: I got offered a promotion today at work.

Husband: Wow! Way to go!

Wife: Yeh, I probably should be excited, but I just . . . I don’t know.

Husband: It looks like you have mixed feelings about it.

Wife: Yeh, I do. I really do. A part of me realizes it is a great opportunity, while another part of me likes what I have going right now. (pauses)

Husband: (gives a little smile, but doesn’t break the silence)

Wife: The promotion offers more pay.

Husband: Besides more money, how would your life change if you took the job?

Wife: I’ve thought about that a lot. (pauses) I see what supervisors have to do, the way they spend their days, and the problems they are expected to solve, and there is just nothing in me that wants that. I really like what I do now. I look forward to going to work on most days. (pause) And I like that my schedule is so good for our home. I can pick the kids up after school, which is a huge advantage compared to what I see other parents juggling. The extra pay is tempting, but I don’t think it outweighs all that.


We’ll close today with another quote that captures something important with very few words. I was alerted to it by Bette Blance, a choice theory leader in New Zealand. The quote reads –

Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters. Think about it.

As the wife was talking to her husband in the last scenario about her possible promotion there were several times when she paused and silence filled the moment. Yet her husband did not jump in and fill the silence with his ideas. He simply remained silent, too, and let his wife work through her thoughts. Like the quote says, Think about it.


%d bloggers like this: