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Through Another’s Lens

I was visiting my father recently and we were catching up on recent events in our family. He described my younger brother’s visit just the week before, watching him play football in the yard with his sons. “Scott is so athletic, even at 45,” he said. (I secretly wished he was still talking about me in this same way.) Our discussion turned to my mother’s little-known athletic abilities while she was in her youth. He went to the basement to retrieve her high school yearbook, but returned instead with her old reading glasses.

“Do you want these?” he asked.

I picked up the worn, red-and-black vinyl case and was instantly flooded with a memory of seeing them on her bedside table while I was growing up. The little metal piece that looks like the Boy Scout insignia was still on the flap, but the snap beneath it had pulled out. A few splatters of white paint dotted the cover.

As I unfolded the straight arms of the brown, horn-rimmed glasses and put them on, I was surprised that the prescription seemed very similar to my own. Though scratched and covered with a fine layer of plastic dust from the inside of the case, the lenses instantly cleared up the fine print of the newspaper lying in front of me on the kitchen counter.

My mother died from breast cancer in 1976 when I was just 17. Over the many years since, I have often wondered what the world—her world—looked like through those lenses. Now, peering through them and just two years older than she was when she died, I wonder how different my world might look to her.

In our work, we are often referred clients for coaching who are “impossible”, “difficult”, “negative” or “critical”. Their behavior is having a harmful impact on their relationships with colleagues or customers, but their technical expertise or skill sets are valuable to the organization. “You’ve got to fix her!” exclaimed one manager, “Because I can’t afford to lose her.”

“Fixing” a problem employee most often begins with understanding him or her completely, and understanding requires empathy, or the ability to see the world through another’s lens. We tend to see and experience our lives only from our point of view first; if we disagree with another’s perspective or opinion, we often judge them to be “wrong”, so we can remain “right.”

Empathy allows us to be curious: What is this person’s experience? Why would he/she act in this way? What are the beliefs or values that this person holds dear? What is he/she afraid of? When we understand, we are in a much more strategic position to be able to offer help or support.

My mother’s glasses reminded me that our lives, while seemingly very different, are probably much more alike than I had previously allowed myself to see. “Seeing” people—what is important to them, what motivates them, what challenges them—is critical to helping them find their way out of negative behavioral patterns and contribute in more meaningful ways.

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