The perception of reality is subjective. I have been aware of this for many years and am gradually understanding the deep effect this has on relationships. Very little in life is absolutely this way or absolutely that way. Recognizing this can be helpful for an individual who is struggling with the idea that anything must be perfectly this way or that way. It becomes more complicated for two individuals and even more complex when a number of people are involved. It’s actually quite healthy that we don’t all perceive things exactly the same way. Remember the story of the five blind men describing an elephant. When each man’s definition was put together with all the other’s definitions, the group perception of an elephant was complete. When one individual perceives a situation to be one way and another individual perceives the same situation to be another way, communication skills become very important.

For instance, a friend of mine was told by her significant other, “there is not enough room in this relationship for two men”. When she asked him what his definition of “man” was an argument followed. “A man! Everyone knows what a man is!” No, there really is no standard definition that fits. How each of us perceives and defines what a man is will be different from how others perceive and define what a man is. Times have changed, men have changed, and we’ve all changed. That is real and, I believe, good.

It is, very important for us to define what we mean when we say something. When two different people, grow up in two different households their perceptions of reality and definitions of words are going to be very different. Even when two people grow up in the same home they will have different perceptions. For the sake of a relationship, even the dictionary cannot make the final decision. Dictionaries were written by people who do not live with us. Respect for ourselves and one another means that we take the time to define, explain in detail, what we mean by our words and how we perceive reality. Respect also means that we listen to and accept the other person’s perceptions of reality and definitions of words.

Our perception of reality begins to develop from birth and involves the attachment relationship we had with our parents or caretakers. People who were not given secure attachments by their parents will have different perceptions from those who were securely attached concerning how an adult relationship should be. Attachment is one of the most important aspects of a relationship. No one is right or wrong, and it is vital for individuals to recognize and respect those differences. That way each individual can make an educated choice concerning whether or not to be in the relationship.

Exercises that can help with perceptual differences involve sitting down and writing out our current value systems. I emphasize the word “current” because, hopefully, we are always changing and our value systems will change according to what is going on around and within us at any given moment. We will value one particular belief until evidence comes along that helps us recognize that we need to change that belief. And the healthier we are the more able we are to change.

One good communication skill is to tell the other person exactly what you heard. Sometimes we hear exactly what the other person said, while other times we hear through our perceptions. Our perception of what was said will change the meaning. Stating what we hear gives the other person a chance to think about whether or not they have said what we have heard or if they meant it differently. And the communication is ongoing.

Often, emotions are so intense that it makes communication more difficult. That is when it is important to carefully (filled with care) listen, to listen with compassion and empathy. When anyone is having intense emotions, they need to know that the other person can empathize with them or “feel” them. When listening with empathy it is vital to recognize that emotions are never “right or wrong”. Emotions just are. Emotions occur according to whatever is going on within and around us. They are like clouds and will come and go according to the emotional weather. If another person can genuinely listen, with compassionate empathy, to the person who is experiencing strong feelings, emotions are more likely to gradually become calm.

Is never helpful to tell someone that they should not be upset or that whatever they’re upset about is not that important. That is invalidating and hurtful. That adds insult to injury. Keeping in mind that the perception of reality is subjective will help the listener accept that the person they are listening to has a right to their feelings. Keeping all of this in mind will help the listener remain calm as they listen. The result of calm listening is usually that the other person also becomes calm.

The ability to listen with compassionate empathy is a vital relationship skill. This is a skill that can be taught to an individual, most effectively, during the first three years of life. Infants/children who have an attuned caregiver will learn how to listen with compassion and empathy through the experience of receiving compassionate, empathic listening. Any individual who genuinely wants to have this skill can learn how to do it later in life. Even as an adult, one of the best ways to learn how listen with compassion and empathy is by being the recipient of compassionate, empathic listening. Often, the best way to learn this skill is through good therapy.