The Seeing/Believing Gap

What you see may be only a fraction of what’s there. To learn more, look beyond what you expect.

Each time Mal “Skip” Bowen sat on his favorite beach, he noticed people diving for abalone a short distance offshore. When he set out to find one himself he bought gear, headed back to the beach, and went into the water. No abalone. Not a single one. He wondered if the tide had changed while he was gone or if someone else caught them all.


Just then a diver strolled by with a large catch. Skip tried again, returning empty handed. He wondered if he needed to wait until seagulls circled or waves reached a certain height when a diver who looked 100 years old, who was perhaps 42, walked by with even more abalone. Skip asked what he might be doing wrong.

The leathery-looking diver spit out a piece of kelp. “There’s something you should know about abalone.” He paused, nodding back toward the ocean. “Until you see your first abalone, you can’t see them at all. Once you see your first one, they’re everywhere.”

Skip grabbed his mask and fins, and headed toward the water. About an hour later, he saw his first abalone. He’s been seeing them everywhere since.

The human eye has a blind spot in its field of vision. The human mind has something similar. Sometimes you can’t “see” new information because you are bound by filters and lack the mental framework to make sense of what your eyes take in. People often see what they want to see and ignore information that doesn’t fit their preconceptions. We default to the shortcut of seeing things the same way. People seek stability and security so seeing things in a way that confirms their beliefs gives them both.

Help yourself see more by looking past your beliefs.

See past categories

To manage an overwhelming amount of data, you create mental category bins where you group similar items. “I don’t need to spend time discovering the nuances of this grub because I know enough about bugs to get by,” explain Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe explain in Managing the Unexpected. But this can be dangerous: “Trouble starts when I fail to notice that I see only whatever confirms my categories and expectations but nothing else. The trouble deepens even further if I kid myself that seeing is believing. That’s wrong. It’s the other way around. You see what you expect to see. You see what you have the labels to see. You see what you have the skills to manage.” After all, that grub might need to go into a bucket labeled food if you’re hungry and lost in the woods.


See past jargon

Few people feel comfortable pointing out they’re missing little details it seems everyone else knows. At the beginning of any class I teach, I ask everyone to fold a paper airplane and fly it forward if there is a term, acronym, or concept we talk about that they’re unfamiliar with. We’re more likely to focus on the airborne plane, making sure to spend time clarifying recent topics, than considering who sent it. It signifies that we need to pay more attention to the words we use so that they make sense to everyone and allow everyone to advocate for themselves in a non-threatening way.

See past assumptions

Assumptions are beliefs about how the world works. They include priorities, lists of what you value more than other things. Over time your assumptions work at an unconscious level, helping you work without constantly determining what you should or ought to act. Similar to the dangers of categorization, the cost for this efficiency is you may fail to notice new evidence contradicting your unsaid beliefs and missing opportunities to update your views of the world. The great philosopher Douglas Adams wrote, “A scientist must be absolutely like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise, you will only see what you were expecting.”

See past isolated concepts

When introduced to a new concept, do you ever think, “Should I know how to use this or know what to do next?” This happens when you don’t have the structure on which to set the new information down upon. You don’t know how it connects to ideas you’re already familiar with, that you already rely on, or have previously made your own. To acquire necessary mental furniture seek associations, metaphors, illustrations, or stories so you can see how this new stuff works with what you know. This past week, two different clients asked me to create an image showing all the steps we would take for their projects. The picture didn’t matter to their concrete styles of thinking as much as their newfound confidence that we had a full-plan, allowing them to see we could proceed.

See past corners

Like something straight out of a sci-fi book, people frequently see the same thing at the same time in completely different ways. We’ve all been to meetings that participants later describe in such different ways you wonder if you were there together. This happens because people see and hear through their personal filters, with their own assumptions, in their own language. When I work with groups, I always ask people to move to a different side of the room halfway through. This ensures each person see (and hears) things from at least one other point of view. When they compare notes and debrief, they have a wider perch to report from.

See past defenses

Are you inclined to dismiss alternative perspectives or facts that don’t fit your case? When you can’t see what others see it’s easy to become defensive and send the signal to back off. While occasionally that’s required, if people around you aren’t listened to, they might stop offering. A former mentor used to say, “Default to curious, never defensive.” Sometimes leaning into new information helps you make sense of it all. Years ago I worked with new employees in the service department of a large company. At the end of their first week of work, armed with a list of answers to common issues, we had them answer live calls, many from irate customers. After only a few, the new employees quickly grasped how much they needed to learn. From then on, they were very receptive to advice, coaching, and lessons from coworkers and instructors on how to handle difficult situations. By relinquishing their defensiveness, they understood where to begin.

See past your usual circle

In Naming Elephants, Sue Hammond and Andrea Mayfield write, “Ignorance and knowledge grow at the same rate because the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” If you ask for a wide range of views, especially from those beyond your usual circles, you increase your potential to see what you can’t see. The more connections you make with people, concepts, experiences, and the environment, the more pathways to learning you create.