Can you recall a time when you and another person shared an experience, but at the end you both had completely different stories about what happened? Maybe you saw a movie with a friend and when talking about it afterward you realize they came away with a totally different take on it. If you’re like most people, then it’s happened to you more than once. Which leads me to a couple of questions. First of all, how can it be that two people see or experience the exact same thing and can interpret it so differently? And, when this does occur, how open and willing are you to entertain or even accept the other person’s point of view?
Answering the first question may be easier than the second.
When you have this experience at work, what is your typical reaction? Do you stick to your perspective and press your point? Do you maybe even find yourself in the position of defending your opinion even when you may believe on some level that your stance could be wrong?
“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” – Benjamin Franklin
As leaders, we must all learn to become more willing to open ourselves to different viewpoints. Being rigid creates defensive reactions and leads people to engage in win-lose scenarios. And truthfully in most of those situations, no one really wins.
Think about the last time this happened to you. What was the situation? How did it make you feel? Was there a possibility that you were being rigid and unyielding, even when there were possible merits to the other position? What was the outcome?
I can tell you in my own life there have been many times when I’ve made the mistake of defending my own ego rather than being willing to see things from a different perspective. And in some cases, it not only cost me professionally in terms of how I was perceived by peers and colleagues; it cost me personally by creating barriers between myself and others.
We are conditioned to believe the things we believe through our life and work experiences, family interactions, peer relationships, etc. Each of us has different experiences that shape how we see and interpret the world around us. Unfortunately for many of us, we are never taught how to see things from another’s perspective. How can we learn to do something that feels so unnatural to us?
“For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them.” – Nicolaus Copernicus
When you find yourself in a situation like this, it helps to ask some simple yet effective questions that will allow you to get to the heart of the matter.
- What is at stake in this situation? Many times we find ourselves becoming defensive of our position even when there is little or nothing to be gained. Asking this question gets you to focus on what is relevant, rather than simply supporting your own ego.
- What is the outcome I’m looking for? When you focus on what you want to get from a situation, you can more easily determine whether your actions will take you closer to, or further away from, your ultimate objective.
- How important is this relationship? This is an incredibly important question to take note of. Will your unwillingness or inability to entertain this other person’s perspective alter the course and quality of an important relationship? Knowing the answer to this question can mean the difference between alienating an important friend or ally and preserving a valuable relationship; maybe even an intimate one.
- Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy? Sit with that one for just a moment. You need to know that in some cases, these two things are mutually exclusive. Which one is more important?
By knowing what’s at stake, focusing on what is most important, keeping the overall goals in mind, and remembering that relationships are far more important than ego preservation, we can learn to shift our perspectives, see things from other viewpoints, and become more effective leaders in all areas of life. And who knows, you just might discover that there were things you didn’t understand.