Career Opportunities podcast logoPreconceptions
By Douglas E. Welch



As I was sitting by my father’s hospital bed earlier this month, I received a direct lesson on the the problems that can be caused by preconceived notions in almost any situation. Sure, we rely on preconceptions to help make it though our day without being crushed by all the information we face, but when we let our preconceptions take the place of active thought, we can do a disservice to ourselves and everyone around us.

The first day I was in the hospital, one of the nurse’s asked a very telling question that shocked me into action. She asked how long my father had been in a wheelchair prior to his surgery. The fact is, he had been up and walking and even working on his small business of small engine repair before he was admitted. I realized immediately that this nurse, not knowing his pre-history was treating him as if he had been an invalid for years. They weren’t pushing him as hard to do things for himself, assuming that he had been incapable of those things before he ever arrived at the hospital.

Once this occurred, I made a point of telling every new nurse, physical therapist and doctor where he had been before the surgery in hopes that they would start treating him differently. It seemed to help. I noticed them challenging him more, much like my wife and I were doing that week. Our goal was to get him moved out of intensive care and into the rehab that had been delayed by aftereffects of the surgery itself. It seemed to work. As his condition stabilized, we noticed a marked change in his attitude and behavior. No longer being treated like an invalid, he stopped acting as one. Sure, there was a long road ahead, but now we all began to see the future with clearer eyes.

I can’t really blame the nurses in this situation. I am sure it is difficult to learn and remember each patients history, but this makes it doubly important for all of us to recognize when preconceptions are clouding our actions and the actions of those around us. I am sure that if you think back on your past week or month, there are several occasions when your own preconceptions got in the way of your work. Maybe you assumed the tech support people would be unhelpful. Perhaps you thought the new client would be reluctant to pay your fee. There are countless preconceptions we engage in every day.

So, how do we guard against allowing preconceptions to control our thinking more than they should? First, when faced with a situation you need to be more aware of the current moment. Try not to let past experiences color your understanding of this experience. As I often say, react to what is happening, not what might happen or what has happened. We can spin all sort of doom and gloom scenarios if we allow ourselves. Your goal should be to be in the moment reacting to what people are saying and doing as it happens. Sure, it can be difficult, but it is also very important.

Next, begin to take notice when people allow their preconceived notions about you to color their actions. As I grow older, I notice the people treat me differently, assuming that I won’t understand them or their problem simply because I am a few decades older, a different color, or have different politics. If you see this occurring, you need to take a step back and think of way to politely, but firmly show this person that you don’t plan on living up to their preconceived ideas about you.

If you start to monitor and control your preconceptions, I think you will find that you will have fewer confrontations, fewer misunderstandings and be generally more productive. Think of how you are treating people and how you might react in the same situation. If someone is acting defensively, you become defensive, too. If someone is angry, it can be very difficult to not get angry as well. Watch how others interact with you and how their preconceptions might be coloring their conversations and behavior towards you. If we can become more aware of preconceptions and how they effect every interaction, we can begin to reduce the effect they have on our work, our career and our lives.

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