Negative misperceptions are easy to acquire and hard to erase.

"She’s a very rude and unfriendly person. She looked right at me and didn’t even say hello or acknowledge me."

"Oh, that guy is a crook. I called him about some work I needed, and he wanted $300 just to give me a quote."

"I won’t patronize that store anymore. They wouldn’t give me a refund on the garden hose I bought from them"

"That store is too expensive. I can get the identical product at half the cost through a different retailer."

"That hostess is purposely ignoring me and seating others before me, even though I was here first. I’m not dining here again."

Maybe the "rude" person who didn’t say hello actually didn’t see you but was staring off in the distance in a daydream. Maybe you’ve mixed up the service fellow with a different but similarly named person.

Perhaps you didn’t get a refund on that garden hose because you’d forgotten you bought it at a different store entirely, and not the one you returned it to. How about that the "identical" product isn’t identical at all, but a different size, different manufacturer, and fewer accessories. It’s possible the hostess has only a table for two available, but you’re a party of six.

So where and how do these misperceptions originate?

Sometimes it’s a matter of incomplete information, and the person makes assumptions to fill in the blanks. Maybe it’s laziness — the person can’t be bothered to check on accuracy. Maybe it’s arrogance — he already "knows" the answer, so he doesn’t need any more clarification. Maybe it’s her upbringing and past experiences (every time this has happened before, it’s because of XYZ, so this is probably the same thing).

Other times it’s because of a disconnect between body language and the verbal. When there’s a disconnect, people will trust what they perceive the body language is saying as the truth, regardless of the words spoken.

You say you’re glad to help a customer solve a problem, but you wrinkle your brow in concentration, which the customer judges to be a snarl, so her conclusion is you really don’t want to help her at all. Or you ask your customer how his day is going, but you never make eye contact, suggesting you don’t really care, and your words are mere rote.

Connotations can also give rise to misperceptions. The word "mob" has a different connotation than the word "group." You ask a certain customer, "Do you know how this works?" and he might angrily reply, "What? You think I’m stupid"

There are inherent limitations in the communications mode used. I remember many years ago an email I sent to an underling. I had been struggling to explain the outcome I needed for a new program and ended with, "Am I making myself clear?"

Now, in my mind, I was trying to ask him simply if I was clear with what I wanted, or if I had confused him further and muddied the issues. That’s not what he "heard" when he read my email. I know because his reply was, "You have made yourself PERFECTLY clear." Oops. I called him to explain I wasn’t being peremptory in my instructions but simply wanted to know if I was confusing. Hearing my voice intonations reassured him of my intentions.

How do you correct misperceptions?

  • Respond directly, calmly and factually.
  • Fill in any missing data to erase a faulty premise.
  • Pay special attention to your body language to ensure it’s equivalent to the verbal message.
  • Openly dialogue about inherent biases that might have contributed to the miscues.

Why bother to challenge these misperceptions? Isn’t the onus on the person making the wrong assumptions? Not if you want to rectify the misperceptions and set the record straight.

Misperceptions impair relationships, both personal and professional. They diminish the product or the brand reputation. Or conversely, even when it’s a misperception that overpromises attributes or benefits, there are costly ramifications when you can’t deliver.