Saturday, 19 September 2009

Can we ever agree about our different perspectives?

When you watch, read or listen to the news, everything is presented in very black and white terms: people are right or wrong. And when something goes wrong, someone must be to blame, so let's find out who that is and... blame them!

You have to wonder if many of the ills in modern society come down to this simplistic and often negative way in the which media portrays our society. We're bound to be affected by it. Media people, of course, might argue that all they're doing is reflecting the way society is. And there could be a grain of truth in that.

How do we break out of this? There is no single answer, but there are two aspects that I feel are key:

Understand perspectives

We human beings are entirely internal creatures. The only thing we can ever experience or know is ourselves. Everything is filtered through this "reality". In other words, everything you think, experience and do is based on your perspective of reality. So that means you don't know what other people's perspectives are - even if they tell you or show you, you're still filtering that through your own perspective. So what? Well this is really key because it means other people, who may hold differing views to you, may not be wrong - because they see it from their perspective. That doesn't mean you are wrong, though. Both perspectives, even if seemingly opposed, can be "right". How can this be? Here's a very simple test: stand in front of a friend or family member, facing each other. Now draw a circle in the air in front of your body, going clockwise. Ask your friend/family member which direction the circle was drawn in. To them it's anti-clockwise. And you're both right. Of course if they come and stand beside you, facing the same way, then they'll see it the same way that you do. The point, though, is that sometimes perspectives can be completely opposed, but both correct. So point number one is: understand that other people's perspectives can be different from yours, and equally valid. Start to think about things in this way, and we are on a journey towards mutual understanding and cooperation instead of wrongs and rights and blame.

Understand your perspective

How can you tell if your perspective is correct? Imagine a scenario where a child has been brought up to call the colour you recognise as being yellow, the colour blue. So when they say blue, you see yellow. Now imagine that's you - when you see a colour you have come to recognise as yellow, to you that's what it is. But everyone else calls it blue. Your perspective has been at least partially created by your environment. So the first thing to understand is that your perspective is relative, not absolute. This means that what can seem an absolute to you (this is the colour yellow) is actually not so at all.

Secondly, your perspective can change. Do you ever revisit some place you knew in childhood, and everything seems different (e.g. smaller, for one)? Or when you buy a new car, suddenly you see the same make and model everywhere around you, when before you'd never noticed. Have those things actually changed? No - it's your perspective on them that has changed.

Thirdly, we are ruled by our emotions, and these can be served by our conscious or subconscious. Our conscious mind is often quite negative: e.g. it's the internal commentary that we hear about things we're doing, and it's often biased towards failure and negativity (what Susan Jeffers calls the "chatterbox" in her well known book "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway"). Then there's our subconscious. This has no connection to the exterior environment - it only knows what our conscious mind tells it. So if we tell ourselves we are weak and feeble, then our subconscious believes that, and acts upon our body in such a way as to make us literally weaker and more feeble. A book I've written about before covers this: Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" talks of people in concentration camps who just give up the will to live because they believe there is no hope - and guess what - they die. Yet others in exactly the same circumstance, who have a more positive outlook (perspective) survive.

David Taylor writes of a similar phenomenon in his "The Naked Leader". A man who played golf regularly has a period of several years when he doesn't play at all. Then when he starts playing again, his handicap is suddenly and consistently far better than ever before. How did this come about? Well he had been a Vietnam prisoner of war during the years when he didn't play. Except that he did: in his mind. In order to stay positive and sane he played on his favourite golf course, a full 18 holes, almost every day. He carefully imagined every putt, every step down the green, every hole. In minute-by-minute minute detail. And he imagined being brilliant in his game. As far as his subconscious was concerned, this was real. So when he started playing again, his body acted accordingly, just as if he was a brilliant player with a great handicap.

Now the three books I've mentioned are great for identifying this stuff around perspective, and both Taylor and Jeffers have lots of self help ideas for becoming a stronger and more positive person. I thoroughly recommend all three books. A fourth I want to mention (and recommend) is "How the Way we Talk can Change the Way we Work" by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. This book has some great practical exercises for both recognising your own perspectives, and working on them to make you a more perspective controlled and positive person.

So here they are:
Frankl, Viktor E. (1946) Man's Search for Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust, Rider & Co, New edition (2004), ISBN-13: 978-1844132393
Jeffers, S. (2007) Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway (20th anniversary special edition), Vermilion, ISBN-13: 978-0091907075
Kegan, R. and Lahey L.L. (2001) How the Way we Talk can Change the Way we Work, Jossey-bass (Wiley), ISBN-13: 978-0787963781
Taylor, D. (2002) The Naked Leader, Capstone, ISBN-13: 978-1841124230

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