A few years ago, my wife Sandra and I were struggling with this kind of concern. One of our sons was having a very difficult time in school. He was doing poorly academically; he didn’t even know how to follow the instructions on the tests, let alone do well on them. Socially he was immature, often embarrassing those closest to him. Athletically, he was small, skinny, and uncoordinated—swinging his baseball bat, for example, almost before the ball was even pitched. Others would laugh at him.
Sandra and I were consumed with a desire to help him. We felt that if “success” were important in any area of life, it was supremely important in our role as parents. So we worked on our attitudes and behavior toward him and we tried to work on his. We attempted to psych him up using positive mental attitude techniques. “Come on, son! You can do it! We know you can. Put your hands a little higher on the bat and keep your eye on the ball. Don’t swing till it gets close to you.” And if he did a little better, we would go to great lengths to reinforce him. “That’s good, son, keep it up.”
When others laughed, we reprimanded them. “Leave him alone. Get off his back. He’s just learning.” And our son would cry and insist that he’d never be any good and that he didn’t like baseball anyway.
Nothing we did seemed to help, and we were really worried. We could see the effect this was having on his self-esteem. We tried to be encouraging and helpful and positive, but after repeated failure, we finally drew back and tried to look at the situation on a different level.
At this time in my professional role I was involved in leadership development work with various clients throughout the country. In that capacity I was preparing bimonthly programs on the subject of communication and perception for IBM’s Executive Development Program participants.
As I researched and prepared these presentations, I became particularly interested in how perceptions are formed, how they govern the way we see, and how the way we see governs how we behave. This led me to a study of expectancy theory and self-fulfilling prophecies or the “Pygmalion effect,” and to a realization of how deeply imbedded our perceptions are. It taught me that we must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see, and that the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.
As Sandra and I talked about the concepts I was teaching at IBM and about our own situation, we began to realize that what we were doing to help our son was not in harmony with the way we really saw him. When we honestly examined our deepest feelings, we realized that our perception was that he was basically inadequate, somehow “behind.” No matter how much we worked on our attitude and behavior, our efforts were ineffective because, despite our actions and our words, what we really communicated to him was, “You aren’t capable. You have to be protected.”
We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.
Source: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
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