6.4 Examining our Perceptions in Conflict

Barriers to Accurate Perceptions

In the perceptual process, several barriers can be identified that inhibit the accuracy of our perception. These barriers are biases, selective perception, and perceptual defense. These barriers to accurate perceptions can be present in many situations, including conflict. Being aware of our own biases can help us to critically examine our own perceptions.


Biases are shortcuts our brain forms based on culture, our own experiences, things other people tell us, and institutional influences.

Biases are formed by social media, socialization, culture, experiences, and institutional influences.
Figure 6.4 How are Biases Formed? Image: Trecia McLennon. Intercultural Awareness and Competence, 2021. CC BY 4.0. [Click to enlarge].

Often, unconscious bias can be difficult to spot because it is not the same as explicit bias or blatant bigotry. For instance, perhaps you consider yourself to be a very open-minded, liberal person who would never use pejorative language about any group of people, but you would still quickly cross the street when you see this group. Or, maybe when providing anecdotes to friends and family regarding people who have annoyed or irritated you in some way, you make sure to mention the race or ethnicity of those who are different from that of your own.


One of the most common barriers in perceiving others at work is stereotyping. A stereotype is a widely held generalization about a group of people. Stereotyping is particularly likely to occur when one meets new people since very little is known about them at that time. On the basis of a few prominent characteristics such as sex, race, or age, we tend to place people into a few general categories. We ascribe a series of traits to them based upon the attributes of the category in which we have put them. We assume that older people are old-fashioned, conservative, obstinate, and perhaps senile. We view professors as absentminded, impractical, idealistic, or eccentric.

One explanation for the existence of stereotypes has been suggested by Jain et al. (2010). They argue that stereotypes may be to some extent based upon fact. People tend to compare other groups with their own group, accentuating minor differences between groups to form a stereotype. For example, older people as a group may indeed be more conservative or more old-fashioned. These traits then become emphasized and attributed to particular older individuals.

At least three types of stereotype can be found in organizations: those dealing with age, race, and gender. Age stereotypes can be found throughout organizations. A recent study by von Hippel et al. (2019) found that there are still clear stereotypes of older employees. They are thought to be (1) more resistant to organizational change, (2) less creative, (3) less likely to take calculated risks, (4) lower in physical capacity, (5) less interested in learning new techniques, and (6) less capable of learning new techniques. When asked to make personnel decisions concerning older people, the business students generally followed several trends. First, they gave older people lower consideration in promotion decisions. Older people also received less attention and fewer resources for training and development. Finally, older people tended to be transferred to other departments instead of confronted by their superiors when a problem with their performance emerged. Similar problems arise for people when they are stereotyped due to surface level characteristics such as race or gender.

Selective Perception

Recall, selective perception is the process by which we systematically screen out information we don’t wish to hear, focusing instead on more salient information. Saliency here is obviously a function of our own experiences, needs, and orientations. The example of the Dearborn and Simon study of managers described earlier provides an excellent glimpse of selective perception. Production managers focused on production problems to the exclusion of other problems. Accountants, personnel specialists, and sales managers were similarly exclusive. Everyone saw their own specialty as more important in the company than other specialties.

Another example of selective perception in groups and organizations is provided by Miner (2015). Miner summarizes a series of experiments dealing with groups competing on problem-solving exercises. Consistently, the groups tended to evaluate their own solutions as better than the solutions proposed by others. Such findings resemble a syndrome found in many research organizations. There is a frequent tendency for scientists to view ideas or products originating outside their organization or department as inferior and to judge other researchers as less competent and creative than themselves. This is often referred to as the “Not-Invented-Here” syndrome. Similar patterns of behavior can be found among managers, service workers, and administrative assistants.

Perceptual Defense

A final barrier to social perception is perceptual defense (Levine & Sefner). Perceptual defense is founded on three related principles:

  1. Emotionally disturbing or threatening stimuli have a higher recognition threshold than neutral stimuli.
  2. Such stimuli are likely to elicit substitute perceptions that are radically altered so as to prevent recognition of the presented stimuli.
  3. These critical stimuli arouse emotional reactions even though the stimuli are not recognized.

In other words, through perceptual defense we tend to distort or ignore information that is either personally threatening or culturally unacceptable. Because emotionally disturbing stimuli have a higher recognition threshold, people are less likely to fully confront or acknowledge the threat. Instead, they may see entirely different or even erroneous stimuli that are safer. Even so, the presence of the critical stimulus often leads to heightened emotions despite the lack of recognition. For instance, suppose that during a contract negotiation for an assembly plant, word leaked out that because of declining profits, the plant might have to close down permanently. Anxious workers might ignore this message and instead choose to believe the company management is only starting false rumors to increase their leverage during wage negotiations. Even if the leverage claim is accepted by the workers as truth, strong emotional reactions against the company can be expected.

One effect of perceptual defense is to save us from squarely facing events that we either do not wish to handle or may be incapable of handling. We dissipate our emotions by directing our attention to other (substitute) objects and hope the original event that distressed us will eventually disappear. Perceptual defense is especially pronounced when people are presented with a situation that contradicts their long-held beliefs and attitudes.

Perceptual defense makes any situation in which conflict is likely to be present more difficult. It creates blind causes us to fail to hear and see events as they really are. The challenge for managers is to reduce or minimize the perception of threat in a situation so these defenses are not immediately called into play. This can be accomplished by reassuring people that things that are important to them will not be tampered with, or by accentuating the positive.

Perception Checking

As humans, we often assume that we are aware of, and even understand, what other people are thinking and feeling — of that our own perceptions of others are correct and updated. In truth, though, we usually do not take the time to clearly attempt to ascertain in a nonjudgmental and clarifying way through perception checking questions: “You seem upset;” “Are you?;” or “I get the impression that this exchange has hurt your feelings in some way. Is this true?” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Gudykunst & Kim (1995) points out that one of the ways to reduce ambiguity and facilitate the process of (intercultural) communication is through frequent perception checking. Simply put, through perception checking, we describe what we perceive the other person to be thinking or feeling and then request clearly and in a non-threatening manner that the other person confirms or corrects our perception. According to Brookfield and Preskill (2005), perception checks send the valuable message that you truly want to listen, observe, and then understand their communication, verbal or nonverbal. This process is valuable in everyday interactions and during both formal and informal conflicts.

Perception-checking is vital to making sure that all involved are interpreting the meaning and message fully and accurately. Importantly, this process gives those whose voice is habitually misunderstood and are victims of miscommunication, for a number of reasons. Such a process, then, allows individuals who may feel persecuted or misunderstood to express their narrative or story in a dignified, humane fashion, thus giving them an opportunity to express their felt human experience.

Let’s Focus: Steps in the Perception Checking Process

When creating a perception check, you will use three steps:

  • Step 1: Describe the behavior or situation without evaluating or judging it. Perception checks include “I” language and a clearly stated observation or fact: “I heard you mention ____.
  • Step 2: Think of some possible interpretations of the behavior, being aware of attributions and other influences on the perception process. This is followed by 2 possible interpretations: “I am wondering if ___ or ___ is the case for you?”
  • Step 3: Verify what happened and ask for clarification from the other person’s perspective. Be aware of punctuation, since the other person likely experienced the event differently than you.
  • The perception check is completed with a clarification request: “Can you clarify?”

Source: Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016) OER

Some Additional Suggestions for Examining Perception in Conflict

Our perceptions of ourselves and of other people can and does change. Context-specific self-perceptions vary depending on the person with whom we are interacting, our emotional state, and the subject matter being discussed. Becoming aware of the process of self-perception and the various components of our self-concept will help you understand and improve your ability to understand yourself and others during conflict. In addition to using perception checking, let’s examine some common barriers to avoid as they can interfere with accurate perception.

Avoid Relying on Rigid Schemata

As discussed earlier in the chapter, schemata are sets of information based on cognitive and experiential knowledge that guide our interaction. We rely on schemata almost constantly to help us make sense of the world around us. Sometimes schemata become so familiar that we use them as scripts, which prompts mindless communication and can lead us to overlook new information that may need to be incorporated into the schema. So it’s important to remain mindful of new or contradictory information that may warrant revision of a schema

Be Critical of Socializing Forces

Family, friends, sociocultural norms, and the media are just some of the socializing forces that influence our thinking and therefore influence our self-perception. These powerful forces serve positive functions but can also set into motion negative patterns of perception toward self or others. Being aware of these socializing forces and how they have helped shape how you view the world can be a powerful tool for thinking critically about how you view yourself and others in conflict.

Create and Maintain Supporting Interpersonal Relationships

Although most people have at least some supportive relationships, many people also have people in their lives who range from negative to toxic. When people find themselves in negative relational cycles, whether it is with friends, family, or coworkers, it is difficult to break out of those cycles. When we find ourselves in conflict at work, these supportive relationships can often provide emotional support, a listening ear, and sometimes helpful advice.

Beware of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Our expectations have the potential to shape how conflict unfolds.  You already know from our discussion of attribution errors that we all have perceptual biases that distort our thinking. Many of these are common, and we often engage in distorted thinking without being conscious of it. Learning about some of the typical negative patterns of thinking and acting may help us acknowledge and intervene in them. One such pattern involves self-esteem and overcompensation.

People can also get into a negative thought and action cycle by setting unrealistic goals and consistently not meeting them. Similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy, people who set unrealistic goals can end up with negative feelings of self-efficacy. Some people develop low self-esteem because they lack accurate information about themselves, which may be intentional or unintentional. A person can intentionally try to maintain high self-esteem by ignoring or downplaying negative comments and beliefs and focusing on positive evaluations. While this can be a good thing, it can also lead to a distorted self-concept. There is a middle ground between beating yourself up or dwelling on the negative and ignoring potentially constructive feedback about weaknesses and missing opportunities to grow as a person. Conversely, people who have low self-esteem or negative self-concepts may discount or ignore positive feedback.

Develop Active Listening Skills

Our fast-paced lives and cultural values that emphasize speaking over listening sometimes make listening feel like a chore. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of listening to make someone else feel better and to open our perceptual field to new sources of information. Active listening can also help us expand our self- and social awareness by learning from other people’s experiences and taking on different perspectives. Active listening is challenging because it requires cognitive and emotional investment that goes beyond the learning of a skill set. Everyone’s reality is their own and when you can concede that someone’s reality isn’t like yours and you are OK with that, then you have overcome a significant barrier to becoming more aware of the perception process.

Beware of Stereotypes and Prejudice

Stereotypes are schemata that are taken too far, as they reduce and ignore a person’s individuality and the diversity present within a larger group of people. Stereotypes can be based on cultural identities, physical appearance, behavior, speech, beliefs, and values, among other things, and are often caused by a lack of information about the target person or group (Guyll et al., 2010).  Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but all run the risk of lowering the quality of our communication.While the negative effects of stereotypes are pretty straightforward in that they devalue people and prevent us from adapting and revising our schemata, positive stereotypes also have negative consequences.

Since stereotypes are generally based on a lack of information, we must take it upon ourselves to gain exposure to new kinds of information and people, which will likely require us to get out of our comfort zones. When we do meet people, we should base the impressions we make on describable behavior rather than inferred or secondhand information. When stereotypes negatively influence our overall feelings and attitudes about a person or group, prejudiced thinking results.

Prejudice is negative feelings or attitudes toward people based on their identity or identities. Prejudice can have individual or widespread negative effects. At the individual level, a hiring manager may not hire a person with a physical disability (even though that would be illegal if it were the only reason), which negatively affects that one individual. However, if pervasive cultural thinking that people with physical disabilities are mentally deficient leads hiring managers all over the country to make similar decisions, then the prejudice has become a social injustice.

Engage in Self-Reflection

A good way to improve your perceptions and increase your communication competence in general is to engage in self-reflection. If a communication encounter doesn’t go well and you want to know why, your self-reflection will be much more useful if you are aware of and can recount your thoughts and actions.

Self-reflection can also help us increase our cultural awareness. Our thought process regarding culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in our perception. However, the old adage “know thyself” is appropriate, as we become more aware of our own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Developing cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. This may be uncomfortable, because our taken-for-granted or deeply held beliefs and values may become less certain when we see the multiple perspectives that exist.

We can also become more aware of how our self-concepts influence how we perceive others. We often hold other people to the standards we hold for ourselves or assume that their self-concept should be consistent with our own. For example, if you consider yourself a neat person and think that sloppiness in your personal appearance would show that you are unmotivated, rude, and lazy, then you are likely to think the same of a person you judge to have a sloppy appearance. So asking questions like “Is my impression based on how this person wants to be, or how I think this person should want to be?” can lead to enlightening moments of self-reflection. Asking questions in general about the perceptions you are making is an integral part of perception checking.

Adapted Works

Unconscious Bias and Visioning” in Intercultural Awareness and Competence Copyright © 2021 by Trecia McLennon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Barriers to Accurate Perception” in Organizational Behaviour by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Perception” in Developing Intercultural Communication Competence by Lori Halverson-Wente and Mark Halverson-Wente is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Communication and Perception” in a A Primer on Communication Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Jain, R., Triandis, H. C., & Weick, C. W. (2010). Managing research, development and innovation: Managing the unmanageable (3rd edition). Wiley.

Miner, J. B., (2015). Organizational behaviour 2: Essentials theories of process and structure. Routledge.

von Hippel, C., Kalokerinos, E. K., Hannterä, & Zacher, H. (2019). Age-based stereotype threat and work outcomes: Stress reappraisals and ruminations as mediators. Psychology and Aging, 34(1), 68-84. doi: 10.1037/pag0000308


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Conflict Management Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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