"Can I ever REALLY see things from the other person's perspective? I'm me...and he's him!"
My friend asked a great question. Short answer? "No." We will never see things entirely through another person's eyes. We will never know all the thoughts that the "other" thinks in their situation, or the feelings they feel. Sometimes we don't even understand our own jumble!
What we're talking about is "empathy." It's popular these days, even as media - both mainstream and social - show us daily examples of its frequent, marked absence. Part of that absence is because empathy's just hard - as blogger Seth Godin recently noted.
But as leaders, we continue to strive. We try to "swap eyeballs" with the people we work with and especially with those who report to us. I once worked on a "first person shooter" video game with the US Army. At one point, I got to maneuver through the game's space in designer mode, and you could actually pass through other characters, seeing the inside of their heads and skeletons as you looked out. Maybe that's gross, but that's kind of empathy. Like Being John Malkovich. Or Potato Heads sharing eyeballs in Toy Story.
What if I really, truly imagine what it is to be the other person, to "borrow their eyeballs" for a minute? What are the benefits?
1) It's the right thing to do. I'm convinced that being human carries the responsibility to seek the good of other people. As we strive for empathy, we see how we can truly care for others.
2) It's good for us. We're designed to live in healthy relationships with others. And empathy is key to those relationships.
3) We learn. By looking through others' eyes, we gain better perspective on ourselves, our work, and our clients.
4) Our team is stronger AND
5) Business is more successful. These go together. It may sound crazy (hopefully not!) but people who understand each other and have each other's interests at heart actually work more effectively together. This has several positive effects, to include an improved bottom line! (Check out the research in Harvard Business Review's discussion of positive work environments.)
My friend who noted empathy's difficulty has also noted a common scenario: how we "listen" to other people. It goes like this:
You talk. Two sentences in, I start forming my response. I think I've understood you, but you've only begun talking. So what I've really understood is an opportunity to advance my own position. If I really want to achieve empathy, I need to continue to listen until you're done.
We'll each have at least one conversation today. Our aim? Slow down. Listen. Read the other's face and body language. We may even swap eyeballs.