Her three year old son sat in the back seat of the car as she stopped at a traffic light. They liked to play word games while driving so she asked him what color the traffic light was.
He replied “It’s green mommy! It’s green!”
A little dismayed that her otherwise bright boy would misidentify the color of the light she nudged him again. “Well son, we’re stopped right now so let me ask you again. What color is the traffic light?”
Once again he replied emphatically “It’s green mommy! It’s green!”
“No son, the light is red.” She said
“It’s green mom!”
She decided to leave it alone at the moment but the incident stayed with her. She thought about the possibility of him being color blind. She chuckled to herself “It must be my husband’s fault for this sight deficiency” She was worried however and somewhat prone to catastrophizing the stories started to swirl in her head. Was he just not as bright as I thought he was? Was there some type of disorder or syndrome at play?
It wasn’t til about three weeks later when her mother in law was in town and her husband driving she sat in the back seat. As she sat there with her child’s vantage point she looked up and realized that the height of the headrest on the front seat made it impossible for her boy to have a decent view out the front window. There was no way he could have seen the traffic light in front of the car.
Puzzled, she let that sink in for a second. Her mind jumped back to the scene earlier when he had misidentified the color of the light.
In a heartbeat it all came clear. He wasn’t color blind, he wasn’t dim witted, he did not have some sort of brain abnormality. What he had was a different view of the world than she did at that moment.
He had been looking out the side window at the light for the cross traffic. That light was 100% green when she had asked him the question. Now she could only imagine his thought process at the time. “Well, my mother seems bright on most other accounts. I don’t know why she’s insisting the light is red. Maybe she’s color blind. Maybe she has some kind of disorder”
Where you sit determines what you see.
This is a highly paraphrased version of a story that author Sheila Heen shared in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss. Sheila is the New York times best selling author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
I would highly recommend checking out the interview. This story however, was the nugget that stuck out the most to me. As a leadership and business coach and someone who is always striving to grow, I keep my eye open for easy to carry insights. Three or four word mantras or phrases that very quickly get to the heart of an issue. One of my core values is the value of Empathy. My value mantra for Empathy is “Seek first to understand”. When I heard this story and heard this phrase I knew it would stick, giving me yet another anchor to my value of empathy.
Where you sit determines what you see.
I think most of us would like to believe that we have the capacity for empathy. We care about how others feel and how the way in which we interact with them makes them feel as well. I haven’t met many people that willingly state that they don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves.
Most of us would say that we are kind and caring individuals. Myself included. However, this story is an excellent reminder that sometimes in order to understand the views, feelings and experiences of those around us we might need to change where we sit. At minimum we need to be able to acknowledge that where we sit determines what and how we see the world.
Coming at any of the difficult conversations we face in the world today through this lens really starts to open possibilities. It opens up opportunities to see things through the lens of another. It allows us to realize that our view may be substantially different from those we are interacting with.
I love getting out to the mountains and I have a lot of outdoorsy friends. Many are very adventurous and like to climb mountains that provide some incredible views of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There are a few spots that are favourites and summit photos often get shared on social media. Yesterday a friend posted a photo of a mountain summit that I know to have stunning vistas and views. Yesterday, however, that was not the case. Those vistas were shrouded in a deep dense fog which completely obliterated any possibility of a decent view.
That same location had been visited by a different set of friends the weekend prior and they had shared some beautiful, blue sky, soft cloud views that stretched for as far as the eye could see. How is that possible? How is it that the exact same view can look so different from one day to the next?
When we think in terms of mountain views and inclement weather there really is no need to explore or explain. We simply understand that what we see is going to be different depending on the environment we are in.
Yet when it comes to having deep, meaningful and especially difficult conversations it is significantly more challenging to consider factors that might cause someone who is looking at the exact same view to see it completely differently. Their lens may well be different from the lens that you are viewing the world through.
My vantage point of the world as a middle aged white dude is substantially different from many of those in marginalized communities. If I want to have meaningful conversations about how to impact change I need to be able to recognize and acknowledge that the seat I have at the table is very likely to create a ton of blind spots.
My social status, class, gender and ethnicity is simply one of many more examples that illustrates this.
Can you imagine how our conversations might start to alter if we can start to see things through the lens of another?
What kind of deeper understanding could we gain if we really became adept at changing where we sit, allowing us to see the world differently?
This doesn’t mean that you need to let go of your beliefs, perspectives or ideas. It does mean though that you should start to look at them from different angles. Challenge your beliefs and attitudes from the viewpoint of another. See how they might shift. Change where you sit so that you can change what you see.
It’s so easy to dismiss beliefs and ideas that are not congruent with our own. It’s easy to say “That just doesn’t make any sense at all” and move on. However, just like in the story of the young boy, sometimes when you do a little more digging the source of those opposing viewpoints becomes crystal clear. It is only when you can see clearly from the view of another that you can start to have the conversations that move the needle.
I talked earlier about values and my value mantras. Another one for me that fits very well here is the value of curiosity. My mantra around curiosity is “Curiosity Over Judgement”. A reminder for me that anytime I start to get a little judgemental, to jump back to curiosity. A reminder that I perhaps need to do a little more digging to understand why someone views the world differently than I do.
My challenge for you today is the next time you run into a conversation where there are opposing views, see if you can take a moment, pause and reflect on how you are seeing things. Challenge yourself to shift your perspective. Move yourself to that back seat like the young boy in the story and see how the world starts to change.