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What You See Is Not Always What You Get

17/06/2014 13:38 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 10:59 BST

A long time ago, I heard a supposedly true story. I don't remember the exact details, like where it was or if it was on a bus or a train but I have never forgotten the point.

Let's say this man was on a train. He was with a couple of very young children, barely more than babies. The man sat quietly in his seat whilst these two small children leaped around, yelling and crying, and were generally bothering the other passengers. The man didn't seem to notice. Or care.

Finally, someone spoke up, reprimanding the man for not controlling his unruly and annoying children.

The man seemed dazed as he looked into the other passenger's eyes, as though it took a moment for the harsh words to register. His reply: "I'm sorry. We're on our way home from the hospital. My wife just died."

It can be easy to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about someone, and those assumptions can become the brush with which we paint everything related to that person. And we don't always know we're doing it either.

This is because it is a normal human tendency to validate what we believe to be true. For example, this is why abused women keep finding abusive men (or vice versa). It is why the little boy whose mother abandoned him will grow up to keep finding women who leave.

A person might say or do something that gives you a particular impression. That impression can become like a filter through which you view everything that follows. It's like wearing a pair of coloured glasses that tint everything you see.

I was at a meeting the other night when someone mentioned that expression, "You'll believe it when you see it" and Wayne Dyer's switch to "You'll see it when you believe it", which is a powerful statement with potentially equally powerful results. Whether Olympic athletes apply it to repeatedly visualising winning their events, or we make assumptions about people and then stick that label on them so we see that and only that, it is about seeing what we believe to be the truth.

One of the most powerful tools you've got is your perspective. It can alter how you view anything and everything, and this can change your life - or the lives of others, depending on your perception of them and how you choose to interact with them - or not.

I was standing in a queue at the supermarket once with a (now ex-)husband who was grumbling rather loudly about the very slow cashier. He blathered on about hating incompetence and I was becoming increasingly embarrassed, as others around us could hear him too. I suggested quietly that he keep it down and that this might be her first day. He insisted that she was just stupid.

When it came to our turn, he disappeared to buy cigarettes while I paid for our groceries. The young woman said, "I'm really sorry to be slow. It's only my second day."

I love kaleidoscopes. I keep a small one on my desk as a constant reminder of the power in perspective. When you look into a kaleidoscope, you see a picture, and when you turn the tube ever so slightly, you get a completely different one. You're still looking at all the same lovely little coloured bits, but the picture doesn't look anything like it did just a tiny twist ago.

We must bear this in mind too when we make judgements about people, especially if behaviour seems out of character. What are you missing? What are you not seeing? Or what are you seeing that isn't really there?

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