Conflicts of perspective happens even when you are experiencing an event firsthand. Maybe you’ve experienced going into a meeting, hearing a presentation, and walking away with a clear understanding of the presenter’s message. But when you talk to a colleague who was at the same meeting, sat next to you, and heard the same presentation, you find out they have a different understanding of the presenter’s message. How does this happen?
It happens because no two people are exactly the same. We all have different experiences, and our brains process things differently. Everything we experience or learn is framed by our perspective. And perspectives are highly subjective. What is beautiful or tall or rude to one person may be ugly, short, and friendly to another person.
Leaders must cultivate the ability to explain their perspective and to listen to and consider the perspectives of others. Accepting their truths does not mean that you will necessarily adopt their viewpoint. It means having the ability to recognize without judgment that there is more than one way to cut up an apple. A leader must be the role model in respecting various perspectives and expressing a willingness to learn from them.
You can begin by acknowledging that differing perspectives exist and intentionally seeking them out in order to gain the largest pool of information and facts available. It’s important to admit that all of these perspectives are real to those who express them. Just as your reality is real to you based on your perspective. Although this process can take time, the benefits are well worth the effort.
What you see depends not only on what you look at, but also on where you look from. —James Deacon
Perspective is all about how we view the world. It is based on our past experiences, our beliefs and values, our understanding of the situation, and our expectations. Perspective is a very individual and subjective viewpoint. Do we see the glass as half, half full, or the wrong size? Perspective shapes our reality. It also highlights the facts that we all have slightly different realities based on our perspective.
An important leadership skill is the ability to hit the pause button on one’s own perspective to look through the lens of another to see their perspective. Don’t simply be an observer when doing this. Be curious about this alternate perspective and be genuine in your desire to learn about and understand the perspective. Leaders need to be able to see the big picture; to see the big picture you must be able to take all the perspectives into consideration.
One of my favorite poems about perspective is The Blind Man and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe. This poem tells the story of six blind men who each had the opportunity to touch an elephant and describe it to others. The problem is that each of the men were only able to touch one part of the elephant. This became their understanding – their reality – of what an elephant was.
Blind Men and the Elephant – A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
The Perspective Trap
So, while one of the blind men describe the tusk as being hard and pointy like a spear, another was describing the tail as flexible and rough like a rope. The other four men also reported wildly different understandings of what the elephant was like. While each was correct in describing that specific part of the elephant, each was wrong in believing that their one single perspective represented the elephant as a whole.
This is an easy and common trap that people fall into. We tend to believe that because we experienced something first-hand, we know everything there is to know about that situation. We don’t. The job of a leader is to be able to gather information from everyone and then put that information together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces you can acquire, the better picture you will have of the overall situation. This process is especially important when making decisions.
Putting It All Together
Understanding the perspectives of others not only increases your cognitive capacity; it provides you with the information needed for successful negotiating, compromise, or consensus building. It also allows you to identify meaningful incentives and rewards. All great leaders excel in these areas and expanding your understanding of perspective is a key strategy for success.
I have come to recognize that all I can do is accept each perspective as being valid to those who share it, discover the many lessons learned, move forward with a newly energized commitment to be aware of my perspectives about issues, and remain open to learning about the perspectives of others. I’ve seen how this openness can shape me into a wiser and more compassionate person.
How often do you find your views conflicting with someone else’s? How often do you take the time to understand their perspective? Do you do anything to help them understand where you are coming from, or do you just continue to argue your point? I challenge you to listen and find out why someone believes what they believe before making a judgment. Take the time to respectfully seek out multiple perspectives on an issue before determining your stance. I challenge you to think for yourself rather than accept whatever story you hear first.
Revised February 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in November 2019.