Better leaders consistently put themselves in others’ place. In Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Atticus Finch says, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’.
For leaders, this means taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees and seeing what the world looks like from where they are. Marty Linsky from Harvard university summarised this idea well when he said, ‘You can’t lead people from where you are. You have to first connect with them where they are.’
Perspective-taking is especially important when you do not understand, and maybe even suspect you will disagree with, someone else’s viewpoint. If you do not understand someone else’s perspective, you are powerless to help them change it – unless they believe you understand where they are starting from, and why that’s their starting point.
Listening leads to reciprocal listening
When the other person believes that you understand their perspective, even if you don’t necessarily share it, they will be more willing to listen to your perspective and point of view. This is partly because of the role that reciprocity plays in human influence, as described by Robert Cialdini, PhD, in his bestselling book The Psychology of Persuasion.
When you listen generously to another’s position, showing clearly that you have heard them, the law of reciprocity then allows you to say, ‘Is it okay if I now share with you my perspective?’ and to reasonably expect agreement in response. In other words, if you seek to understand their perspective, they will be more inclined to seek to understand yours.
By engaging in perspective-taking, listening and understanding, you can also avoid the negative communication spiral that is a consequence of arguing.
Hearing a different truth
Understanding others’ perspectives is not always easy for some leaders, because they see only one possible version of things or one version of ‘the truth’. The following story illustrates this point well.
Curse or saviour? A manager from the Department of Agriculture visited a large country town to tell the local farmers about a wonderful plan he had to eradicate a toxic introduced plant species called Echium Plantagineum from the environment.
The plant, known commonly as Paterson’s curse, had spread rampantly across the countryside and was killing cattle and other livestock when they fed on it, especially during dry periods when the toxic plant grew prolifically.
The manager did a wonderful job explaining all the benefits to the livestock farmers of his plan and left behind some information and his contact details for farmers to follow up if they were interested in trialing the solution.
Sometime after the meeting, the manager contacted the local representative of the Farmers’ Federation to find out why so few farmers had followed up on the trial. The local told him that significant resistance had emerged from some sections of the community about the trial, especially among the beekeepers.
The manager learned that the beekeepers had a different name for the plant. They called it Salvation Jane, because in hotter, drier periods and drought years, it was the only plant that would flower and provide enough nectar to keep the bee colonies flourishing. His great plan to eradicate this plant species that killed livestock would also cause losses to the apiarists, and the other farmers who relied on the bees to fertilise their fruit, vegetable and seed crops. In this case, the manager hadn’t understood the two versions of truth that existed – his, and the one held by the people he needed to influence.
Realising his mistake, the manager returned to the town and engaged with the resistors to understand their concerns and gather their ideas on what would allow the trial to proceed. Following these discussions, he adjusted the proposed trial to also meet the needs of the beekeepers and food producers. This time the trial was able to proceed successfully.
The beach ball problem
The preceding story illustrates that sometimes our arguments and misunderstandings are a product of seeing the same thing but from different vantage points or perspectives. What’s known as ‘the beach ball problem’ also illustrates this.
Imagine you and a colleague are seated at a table opposite each other. On the table in front of you is a multi-colored beach ball, with different segments or strips of colour lining the ball all the way around. You can see only stripes of blue and red, while your colleague can only see stripes of yellow and green. To you it’s a blue and red ball. To your colleague, it’s a yellow and green ball. You are both partially right. If you were to either rotate the ball or even better swap seats with your colleague, you would see that, yes, it is a blue and red ball, as well as being a yellow and green ball and also an orange, purple and white ball. It is, in fact, a multi-colored beach ball.
Duck or rabbit?
Perspective-taking requires you to understand not only what others see from their vantage point, but also the interpretations and meaning they make of what they see. Even when you’re looking at the same thing as another person, what you think you see – the meaning you make of it – can be very different. This is well illustrated by the following image.
What do you see? A duck? A rabbit? Something else altogether? When I show this well-known 100-year-old optical illusion in workshops, some people can only see the image as a duck no matter how hard they stare at it, whereas others see it only as a rabbit. They can then argue about which it is, a rabbit or a duck. Both the ‘rabbit people’ and the ‘duck people’ believe they know the truth and the others do not.
Of course, both groups are correct. They are also both wrong. There is no duck or rabbit. They are simply looking at a projection of ink lines on a page that represent a duck or rabbit.
Human beings make meaning of things so quickly and automatically that we often don’t question the assumptions that create the meaning. For this very reason, we often end up in pitched battles with others as to who has the right view. We have the same data and information, yet we make very different meaning of it. Then, when we feel others are incapable of understanding our view, we trust them less.
For you to be an effective leader, therefore, recognising where your determination to prosecute your version of the truth is in effect canceling out someone else’s – and destroying trust in the process – is critical.
Xtraordinary leaders are therefore conscious of the role their own assumptions play in limiting their meaning-making, and are more comfortable challenging their own assumptions or having them challenged by the world views and perspectives of others.
Once we choose to intentionally listen and really open our minds to different perspectives, something incredible emerges – greater insight, connection, trust and engagement. Translating that intent into practical techniques for deep listening is something we’ll explore in the fourth and final article in this series.
For more on this topic or other essential leadership issues please visit our website, read my other blog articles, listen to my podcast, or read my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership