How often do you fail to see someone?

Today is June 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you fail to see someone?” American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. noted “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” As an extension we can add “and because they fail to see each other.”

People who navigate the chaos understand the necessity of seeing others as they are is critically important in relationships. While you may look at crowds of people in a day how many do you see? The definition of seeing people here refers to their authentic self. But seeing someone is complex and involves several factors to understand.

Perhaps one of the most important elements involved with seeing someone is their inability to show the world their authentic self. In some respects, the world has grown more welcoming for people in terms of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

For example, 30 countries and territories have enacted national laws allowing gays and lesbians to marry, mostly in Europe and the Americas. There is no doubt much work remains to create a global environment allowing people to show their authentic self more freely. Until that time arrives, however, many people will not let you see their authentic self and use this as an act of self-preservation. Decades ago American singer Billy Joel wrote about this in his 1977 song The Stranger:

Well, we all have a face

That we hide away forever

And we take them out

And show ourselves when everyone has gone

Some are satin, some are steel

Some are silk and some are leather

They're the faces of a stranger

If you remind yourself that many people are hesitant to show you their authentic self, then today’s Navigate the Chaos question serves as a good reminder to pause as you travel your path and take time to see people for who they truly are. This requires a good deal of dedication, time, and work. But rest assured no one who has ever translated their dreams into reality did so alone.

Somewhere along your travels there will be people who come across your path who might like to be seen by you. For whatever reason they feel a connection but are unsure as to how to get your attention. It will be up to you to see them. To do that you will need to understand what influences your vision in the first place.

Your vision of who others are is often influenced by your environment and social orientation. For example, an eye-tracking study by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan found that participants from East Asia tend to spend more time looking around the background of an image – working out the context – whereas people in America tended to spend more time concentrating on the main focus of the picture.

But why did the different thinking styles emerge in the first place? Nisbett points out that Western philosophers emphasized freedom and independence, whereas Eastern traditions like Taoism tended to focus on concepts of unity. Confucius, for instance, emphasized the “obligations that obtained between emperor and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend.”

These diverse ways of viewing the world are embedded in the culture’s literature, education, and political institutions, so it is perhaps of little surprise that those ideas have been internalized, influencing some basic psychological processes.

If you want to see people better, and if you want to be seen more clearly, social psychologist and best-selling author Heidi Grant Halvorson, explains why we are often misunderstood and how we can fix that. In her book No One Understand You: And What To Do About It, she writes that most of us assume that other people see us as we see ourselves and that they see us as we truly are. But neither is true. Our everyday interactions are colored by subtle biases that distort how others see us—and shape our perceptions of them.

For Halvorson people can improve how they see others, and how they in turn are seen by understanding the three critical lenses that shape perception:

1. Trust: Are you friend or foe?

2. Power: How much influence do you have over me? And

3. Ego: Do you make me feel insecure?

Thus, when a stranger, or someone you know, comes across your path as you navigate the chaos, they may see you as a foe, they may believe you have some degree of influence over them and they may feel insecure around you. The point is for you to be aware of these possible perceptions. Doing so will help you see people and their authentic self.

Based on decades of research in psychology and social science, Halvorson explains how these lenses affect our interactions—and how to manage them. Once you understand the science of perception, you will communicate more clearly, send the messages you intend to send, and improve your personal relationships. You will also become a fairer and more accurate judge of others.

American author John Steinbeck noted “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

As you go about navigating the chaos today, try to remember how many people you see but fail to understand. What is the cause of your blindness and what can you do to improve your vision?