Improve Any Relationship by Challenging Your Perceptions


“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

This morning, I found my wife desperately trying to make her printer work after having set herself one hour to get some good work done. I told her she should use my printer and concentrate on more important things. Surely her printing goal was to get the document in hand, not to spend her one precious hour fighting the machine?

When our argument had died down (yes, it really did get that far!) and after I had finished my morning meditation, I realized that I had once again committed my favorite error: mixing up reality and perception and not calling things by their proper name.

In my mind, she was wasting her time and unlikely to get her any good results. I had told her so and that’s where we started arguing.

To call things by their proper name is all about seeing and expressing the difference between reality and perception. I had been swept away by my own perceptions. And by imposing them on my wife, I was not only disrespecting the reality of the situation, but also the woman I live with and love.

If I had stopped to think, I would have realized that the reality was very different to what I had thought and said: My wife was using the majority of her one work hour trying to solve a printing issue. Full stop. Who said she was desperate and stupid, and should use my printer and focus on more important things?

When we are caught up in our own egos and forget to distinguish between our own perception and the factual reality of things, all sorts of bad consequences can arise.

We blame others for our own reactions, we see neutral things as right or wrong, and we judge others as not befitting our own standards. It is true that I would have spent my one working hour differently, but who am I to impose this on my wife?

Having made my post-meditation promise to call things by their proper name, I realized as the morning went on that I was doing the opposite all the time: The weather was beautiful, the baby horse was cute, the kids were too noisy. I couldn’t say “no” to my client, I had too many emails and lunch was over-cooked.

So I am going to stick at my challenge and see if I can spot the moments when I mix up perception and reality.

If I succeed, I believe I will gain more self-knowledge about the way I am operating and the way I am judging my experiences. I believe that this will in turn give me more chances to really choose how I behave, how I communicate, and how I react to the world.

If this post means anything to you and you are inspired to pick up the challenge, here is my prescription:

Keep your eyes and ears open for moments when other people express their opinions as if they were fact.

(For example: “That’s not good” and “ you can’t…”)  It’s often easier to see in others than yourself, and observing others is a good place to start.

Every time you spot yourself liking or disliking something, take note and ask yourself: “What is the reality here and how do I perceive it?”

With a little time, you will become more aware of your own preferences and their impact on how you operate day-to-day.

Try to express reality and perception as two different things.

For example: “There is a baby horse that I find nice to look at.” This will make you sound less judgmental and maybe keep you out of a few arguments!

Try and avoid using judgmental words like “should,” “better,” and “important.”

These are often nothing more than indicators of your own perception, and things might work out better for you if you don’t impose them on other people.

When Confucius said “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name” I believe he meant to say that humans have a tendency to associate the truth with their own point-of-view. I did this with my wife without even realizing.

If you take up this challenge yourself, be patient with yourself and others and see if you can call things by their proper name. It may bring you more happiness, more honesty, and maybe even a little self-knowledge.

Photo by Sean McGrath

About Dan Steer

@dan_steer is a freelance learning consultant and trainer living and working in Belgium. It is his goal to help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating infinite learning opportunities. You can read his own blog here:

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  • Really good points. I too try to practice mindfulness with my perceptions throughout the day, yet I still find myself arguing with loved ones over a dissonance between what is and the way I perceive what should be. Definitely a work in progress. Thanks for the motivation boost!

  • A lovely post thank you. I particularly adore the quote. I agree, at times, I do think there is a right or wrong but there often isn’t. Something for me to remember. Thank you.


  • Mary Gottschalk

    Dan — a lovely essay, and something we all ought to remember in our relationships. But the best part, I thought, was your comments about “what I believe” vs “what is true.” One of the great benefits of traveling and living around the world is the realization that other people and other cultures see the world through a different lens … and sometimes their lens is far superior to one I started with.


  • fnordburger

    This was good to read. It brings to mind the non-fiction writing of Robert Anton Wilson who repeatedly highlighted Korzybski’s idea of E-Prime as an antidote to a lot of conflict in communication and thinking. It helps that you grounded it personally as, for myself, I find it easy to think of these things abstractly and conveniently less easy to practice them on a day-to-day level.

  • growthguided

    Unique perspective Dan.

    I like your perspective. Thanks for the post!

  • Holly Weeden Greenfield

    I absolutely LOVED this article. Thank you!

  • Dan, I believe that all that we call reality is “Perception”. There’s not true reality except for the one we create in our mind. If we can observe without passing judgment, all need for conflict would cease. There would be no point to argue right or wrong, good or bad. Nonetheless, I love the exercise that you presented on how you suggest that people should question their own thoughts. As people, we don’t do this enough, which leads us to believe every thought that bubbles to the surface. My motto is “question everything.” Great post, it was very thought-provoking.

  • lv2terp

    Thank you for this post, it is very true how often perception is mixed with reality causing so many problems. This is a great reminder and a good tip/prescription to become aware of others doing it first, then move on to myself….challenge accepted! 🙂

  • Dan Steer

    Well you’ve done a good job of describing your arguments here Meg.
    “Dissonance” is a great word for people to remember when they argue. Its not that someone is “right” or “wrong”. Unless you are talking about pure facts, then Shawna is surely “right” (see comment).
    And some would argue there are no facts at all… but that’s another conversation 🙂

    Thanks for reading!

  • Dan Steer

    I’ve been doing it tonight at the dinner table… just listening.
    It’s amazing to me how early in life people start saying things like “disgusting” and “bad” and “not fair” in place of “I don’t like it” or “It doesn’t suit me” or any other perception-based statement.. I must have accidentally programmed my kids to speak in that way… :-/

  • Dan Steer

    The philosophers have gone very far discussing your first statement Shawna. Personally, I pretty much agree. I’m not one of those people who says that trees don’t exist if no-one is looking at them, but:
    * Any value-based judgement of that tree is for me only perception, not reality. Right and wrong is either a complete construction, entirely personal or an agreement between individuals in order to operate well together
    * All perceptions seem to include some kind of value-judgement
    * Value-judgements made but not noticed are the cause of much dispute
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • Dan Steer

    It makes me really happy to hear this Holly. I didn’t expect to get comments like that. Thank you 🙂

  • Dan Steer

    Thanks growthguided.
    If you read “Non-Violent Communication” by Rosenberg you’ll see I stole it all from there 🙂
    No seriously.. its a great book outlining how very much of what we say and believe doesn’t distinguish correctly between the reality and our own feelings about it.
    Worth a read!

  • Dan Steer

    As a student of philosophy, I have to say I find it good fun to also think about these things in an abstract way. But if you DO try to ground it in every-day examples, you’ll see that we mix these things up all the time.
    I also find that the more I “debrief” a situation afterwards in terms of “situation -> perception -> behaviour -> results” the easier it gets to see how I reacted and how it did or didn’t help me.
    i also believe that by “debriefing” regularly, the time between “situation” and “successful debrief” gets shorter. Maybe even instantaneous for some things… least: That’s the idea 🙂
    Thanks for reading,

  • lv2terp

    That is wild, so much benefit form listening, paying attention, mindfulness, and then being objective. A tall order for sure! ha. What seems to be the most challenging part as you mentioned, accidentally programming the kids…guilty in several areas, is that it is so very subconscious. humanistic, social behaviors that we don’t even “see” happening. I just read something recently that said if I remember correctly, that 90% of our actions, etc. are based on subconscious thinking, only 10% we are in conscious mode and aware. That was shocking to me! Thank you again for your post, I am on a mission! 🙂 hehe.

  • Dan Steer

    Completely agree Mary.
    Living with a woman from another culture (country, religion, socio-economic background), I have found that out the easy/hard way.
    I agree it is easy to see those different lenses when looking at different cultures and add that in fact every single human being has a different “lens” or, if you prefer, a different culture. Those convictions, beliefs, experiences, educations, religions, politics and other ego-baggage we carry around with us every day have a massive impact on how we see the world and interact with others.
    That idea is nicely visualised in the movie “Darjeeling Limited” – its only when the brothers finally drop their bags that they manage to get on the train.
    Also nicely explained in Tolle’s book “The power of Now”.
    Bon weekend!
    Thanks for your comment,

  • Dan Steer

    Personally, I think its for everyone to remember.
    Happy you will try 🙂
    Thanks Sophie,

  • Dan Steer

    90% ???!
    Good luck 🙂

  • lv2terp

    Right, I wasn’t sure if I remembered that correctly, so I Google’d it..ha…Here is the article it is from. Thanks Dan, you too! 🙂 -mind/

  • Josh Emmanuel

    Good article!

    I’d like to flip your comment and say “what we see in others is what we see in ourselves”. If we can begin to see ourselves without judgment, it can help us see the world and others without judgment!

  • Sarahlou

    I love how theses articles arrive just when u need them!, perfectly put. Just as I am getting cross with doing the washing at what I consider a crazy time cos it won’t get dried and will mean using the dryer or draping it round the house I realise – after reading your article this is just perception not reality! Ok it’s not my way of doing things – but why shd he do it my way. I wd say that every argument we have is purely about that, my perception or his perception of how to do stuff around the house. If we changed how we saw all that, there wouldn’t be much left to argue about!! Thanks Dan

  • lisazug

    Ayn Rand is rolling in her grave right now. I, however, loved this post — and I’ll accept your challenge to go into my week with the goal of discerning perception from reality!

  • Dan Steer

    Its good to have these realisations when they are needed Sarah-Lou. Often they come too late and become things like “I wish I’d said that” or “I wish I had done it differently”.

    There is a nice video on “ego-states” here which talks about some of the perceptions we have…


    Thanks for reading,


  • Dan Steer

    Cool – thanks for the reference. I read the wiki-entry and (as almost every day) learnt something new 🙂

    Good luck!

  • Dan Steer

    Completely agree Josh. My wife says that it goes even one step further and that until we have figured out what we see in ourselves, we will KEEP seeing it in others…

    Thanks for the feedback…

    I’m glad YOU think it is “good” 🙂


  • growthguided

    Such an important question to ask yourself!

    “Every time you spot yourself liking or disliking something, take note and ask yourself: “What is the reality here and how do I perceive it?”

    The lens we hold over our eyes on the world makes all the difference in our happiness and ability to connect with life!


  • Dan Steer

    I wish I hadn’t said “every time” – its driving me mad!!!

  • Katherine

    I feel like I have so many things to say! But to sum it all up.. I love this article. I find it to be helpful in so many ways. Thank you, Dan!

  • So true. We all do this all the time! It’s so important to be more aware and conscious so we pause before we respond to someone or something. Things are not always as they seem,

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