We’ve all heard it before. Some variation on seeing things from someone else’s perspective is part of our narrative from childhood—shifting your paradigm, walking in someone else’s shoes, or looking through binoculars to see what someone else is seeing. Pick your cliché. But what does it look like in action and do we really even do it consistently?
I imposed it on my own boys when they were small, like many parents do. “You took Joe’s toy right out of his hand. Look at him crying. How would you feel?” (I use it on them still, but now that they’re teenagers, it’s more like, “Hey, quit being a jerk. You know he’s going through a tough time right now. Show some compassion.”)
People who are hard-wired to avoid conflict prefer another version; one that is more anticipatory and assumptive. “I can’t tell Susan how I really feel about what she said; it will hurt her feelings and lead to a conversation I’m not ready to have.” Or, “I can’t ask Robert to take on one more thing. I’ll just do it myself.”
Yet another version comes when we see a place or person through someone else’s eyes who brings fresh perspective. “This is such a beautiful place! So peaceful, so quiet. So much space. How could you ever want to leave it?” It can work in the opposite way as well. “How can you keep working there? They treat you so badly, never listen to your ideas or suggestions, and steal credit for your work. You should just quit.” This version tends to see only one side of things, based on the context and perspective of the person seeing it without consideration of the other side at all.
But there are three sides to every story—your version, the other person’s version, and the “truth”, which is simply the objective facts.
Joe, the crying child, had snatched the very same toy from his brother just a few moments before. The one who provoked tears from him was simply the one who got caught. The crying is what brought adult attention to the matter.
The woman who doesn’t want to hurt Susan’s feelings has suffered fairly significant hurt feelings herself from Susan’s previous outbursts. Her assumption that Susan will respond badly to her feedback is based on her own perspective and fears about the encounter. The assumptions about Robert’s workload may be denying Robert a chance to learn something new and grow. We don’t know because we didn’t ask.
As for the colleague who visited my farm and appreciates all of its charm and beauty, she doesn’t live in my skin, in my family, and spend every day here with the challenges that reality brings. Similarly, my own urging to a friend who continues to work in what I perceive to be a totally toxic environment is one-sided.
In all scenarios, there is a missing perspective which could bring a more balanced view. Are we willing to try and see it? Are we willing to make sure it is heard?
This is the stuff that communication mishaps are made of. I have my take on what happened and you have your take on what happened. We both make assumptions about the other’s position and/or feelings. We make decisions about what the other person can handle hearing. We choose not to share something that would give greater understanding but could potentially hurt, offend or upset the other person.
We need to be more worried about helping each other see the other’s perspective and less worried about the potential for conflict. If you’re willing to stick with the conversation, you can usually find a way to get through it.
Often, those hard conversations lead to an even stronger relationship and clearer path forward together.
We have to be willing to engage. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. It won’t always go smoothly. It might not end well, at least temporarily. But if we aren’t willing to genuinely seek to understand one another’s perspectives, how can we hope to find common ground and find solutions?
Give me those binoculars every time. I want to know how your perspective and experience are informing your position. I want to engage. Help me see what I can’t see on my own.