08/06/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Objectivity: The Power of Seeing Things as They Are (Part 2)

In the last blog, I shared extreme cases of subjectivity, situations where people overreacted because they projected their fears or past experiences onto the current situation. We do this quite a bit. It is our inherent subjectivity. This is what we tend to do:

We perceive through our senses a person, a situation or an event, and in an instant, we project our mental models -- our fears, background and experiences -- onto that perception. This often results in cognitive errors, which means we judge and respond incorrectly.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes our assumptions and preconceived notions are wrong and therefore our interpretation of events is incorrect. This causes us to overreact, to take things personally or to judge people unfairly. The question is: Is it possible to be objective?

From everything I have studied about the philosophy, psychology and the science behind objectivity, from everything I've learned from teaching and engaging with thousands of people of all ages in corporate training seminars, workshops and graduate business school classes, and from everything I've gained from my own experience -- I have concluded that it is indeed possible to increase one's objectivity. I believe from an empirical perspective, how we experience the world every day, that there is an objective reality. I call it "It is, therefore I see." In other words, everything that is part of our world, for which we can say it is, whether we see it or not, is our objective reality.

For example, the other day I was driving to a meeting. I got off the highway and started following an unfamiliar route in the city. I was thinking about what I wanted to say at the meeting, who would be there -- everything but the driving. All of a sudden I heard a loud "thud," and was bounced uncomfortably on my seat. My car had hit a pothole. Nothing I could do or say or feel would change the objective reality of that pothole. Whether I see it or not, it is!

Even though empirically there is an objective reality, I do not believe we can be 100-percent objective. Complete objectivity is not an option. We are all subjective about the way we respond to "what is," whether it's the people we encounter, the circumstances in our lives or ourselves. What we can do is reduce our subjectivity, what I call "I see, therefore it is." This encompasses our projections -- the things we make up about a person, a situation or an event that are not real. And we make up so much. We do this in all aspects of our lives, even when just walking down the street. For example:

Have you ever passed someone on the street and wondered why he or she looked at you funny? In this case, we see what we decide is a funny look and exclaim that it is. In most cases, the person was just pensive, thinking about something other than you and just happened to be looking in your direction. How about this? Have you ever perceived a negative tone in a three-word text message and responded back with a negative tone? These are the things we make up. We make it real, part of our reality, our experience, and we respond as if it is.

My own experience has certainly validated for me that we can challenge our underlying assumptions and the way we frame our world in order to reduce our subjectivity and respond more objectively to what actually is. We can learn to be clear about and respond to objective reality -- the it is, therefore I see. When we can see things as they are, without projecting our mental models and fears, we are being objective. When we can understand and consider another person's point of view, we are being objective. When we can identify and evaluate assumptions and conclusions other than our own, we are being objective. Therefore our working definition of objectivity is:

Objectivity is seeing and accepting things as they are without projecting your fears, mental models, and past experiences, and responding thoughtfully and deliberately to the people, challenges and opportunities in your life.

If you are interested in increasing your objectivity, below is a helpful way to get started:

Step 1 -- assessing where you are and pinpointing your hot spots.

Ask yourself:

• How often do I overreact to situations?
• How often do I take things personally when they really were not meant that way?
• How often do I judge people unfairly based simply on the way they look?

Once you have a sense of how often you are responding less than objectively, the next step is to pinpoint your hot spots by identifying what types of situations or interactions about which you are least objective.

Describe a situation in your personal life where you were less than objective. Jot down your answers to the following questions:

• What is the objective reality of what happened?
• What were my assumptions? What did I think was happening?
• What was my response?
• Looking back, what could have been a more appropriate response?
• What did it cost me?

Then repeat this exercise for a situation in your professional life, something that happened at work.

Once you begin to think of situations where you can benefit from more objectivity, the next step is to understand our inherent subjectivity and our capacity to be more objective. The next blog will explore the subject-object relationship, and how our brains work to help us navigate our world. We will also discuss drivers of subjectivity -- the mental models, thoughts, fears, habits and tendencies that we project onto current situations and that cause us to react in ways we sometimes regret.

I invite you to share your experiences. Where are you the least objective, at home or at work?

For more by Elizabeth R. Thornton, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.