Do you ever wonder how other people perceive you? It's probably safe to assume that the way others see you is at least a little different than you see yourself (and at times might differ significantly). You can make inferences about how you come across to others from the verbal and non-verbal messages they send when you interact with them; but short of someone "cluing you in" or asking others for feedback directly, it's very difficult to know with any certainty what you look like to the rest of the world.
Most of us operate under the mistaken assumption that other people see things the same way we do. This can create a lot of unnecessary conflict. For example, when someone is rude to us we assume this person intended to be rude. We then draw our own conclusions about why that person was rude: he doesn't like us, he's rude to everyone and is basically just an asshole overall, the stress of a new promotion is too much for him and he's on the verge of a breakdown, etc. Any and/or all of these things could be true -- or not. It could be that the person didn't mean to be rude at all and has no idea he came across that way.
As a rule, I am a big fan of open communication and not jumping to conclusions. I believe it is always best to check your perceptions before making assumptions about the motivations of others. Despite this (and I'm sure I am not alone), I still find myself coming across in ways I don't intend.
A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me and to many of my colleagues that my boss did not like me very much. My initial response to this realization was, "Good. The feeling is mutual." Over time - and with a little persuasion from a couple of trusted coworkers - I decided that it really was in my best interest to be on my boss' good side -- or at least not on his bad side. After all, he was in charge of a lot of decisions that could have a significant impact on me. The problem was, how did I fix things when I had no idea what I'd done to rub my boss the wrong way?
Fortunately, I had a couple of more experienced colleagues who were sort of like mentors to me. They explained that my boss thought I was rude and disrespectful because I was always doing something other than paying attention at meetings, I never contributed to group discussions, and I barely seemed to listen when he talked to me.
This came as a complete surprise to me, although I could see how he might interpret my behaviors the way that he did. See, I'm the type of person who tends to be in "my own little world," especially when I'm in a large group of people. I also have a really difficult time paying attention for long periods of time while someone stands at the front of a room and talks. (It's always been a problem, even in college). In addition, when I'm focused on something it's hard for me to pull my attention away from it, even when someone like my boss walks into the office to talk to me.
It was never my intention to be disrespectful or dismissive, but that's how I was perceived. Once I was made aware of how my boss viewed my actions I made a conscious effort to change them. I went out of my way to contribute to discussions and to participate during meetings. I also went out of my way to be friendly to him. And my efforts paid off. A year later, my boss went to bat for me when the clinic manager at my work site bad mouthed me to a superior. I was glad to have his support and I told him so.
That's a story with a happy ending but I'm still a work in progress -- we all are. I recently discovered that my husband thinks I am selfish because I don't like to share or loan things to people. (On the flip side, I also hate borrowing things from other people. I don't like having outstanding loans, be it to another person or to the power company). I understand how not wanting to share with others can be seen as selfish. Really, though, my discomfort with this stems from anxiety. Although I realize it's unreasonable, I like to have all things in their proper places. It really bothers me when something is out of place. Obviously, if someone else is borrowing something from me that thing can not be in its "proper place." It just creates a lot of anxiety.
I got defensive when my husband told me how he perceived my unwillingness to share. Later, though, I realized that it was important for me to know. It's important to understand how your behaviors are perceived by others, even if you ultimately decide not to change them; it is an invaluable tool for increasing self-awareness and stimulating self-growth.