For just a moment, think about each of these terms as applied to people:
Used car salesman
What thoughts crossed your mind? Did “millennial” make you think “person born between mid-80s and early 90s” or did “entitled” enter your mind? Did “used car salesman” make you think “someone who sells used cars” or did “dishonest” pop into your head? Does “West Coast” evoke a place or a lifestyle or a set of political beliefs?
At face value, those terms just describe one thing - a person’s age or occupation or where they live. But rarely do we stop at face value when we attach a label to a person. Especially when we don’t know someone well, the uncertainty invites a host of associations to accompany the label and they are usually negative. Uncertainty breeds suspicion. Suspicion creates negative assumptions which lead to false certainty. Suddenly we feel like we know a whole lot more about a person than we really do.
For obvious reasons, that can be problematic. Just because I’m an old dude from Kentucky, that doesn’t make me a shoeless curmudgeon. (For the record, I am a shoeless curmudgeon.)
But it is not just labels that cause us to suspect something beyond face value. We also do that when judging a person’s own words and behavior. Do their words reflect what they really mean or should you be looking for hidden meaning? Are they hiding something?
This can be a big deal when it comes to making decisions. To make accurate decisions that align with our goals and values, we need accurate information. Therefore, we need to be able to trust the source of the information. But how can we do that? When should we take the information we are presented with at face value and when should we question it and dig deeper?
It’s a question that needs careful consideration because misjudging in either direction can cause issues. Not taking someone at their word will create a cycle of mistrust. Trusting information without evidence can lead you to a poor outcome.
To judge, trust, and wonder
Human judgment relies on a variety of information sources - experience, intuition, emotions and higher level thought processes. They all come into play in different amounts and intensity depending on the situation, so no rules-of-thumb apply every time. That said, here are a few questions you can ask yourself when you have uncertainty about someone or their information, or when you feel underlying suspicion or fear or doubt about their “face value.”
How well informed is your feeling? Is it based on experience or unfounded fear or an identity label?
How likely is it they are hiding something, especially something important to you?
To what can you attribute your level of certainty - evidence or feeling?
What is the worst thing that can happen if you trust the person or their data? What if you don’t?
Does their information align with or contradict other data you have collected?
In the end, it is always a judgment call. The worst thing you can do is take an uncertain suspicion and run with it. Don't turn the unsettling feeling of uncertainty into the safer feeling of certainty without evidence. Either get more actual certainty through more information or embrace the uncertainty and lean into trust.
Think well and be well!
- Steve Haffner
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