Updated: Aug 23
Whether or not we need literal glasses, each of us nonetheless views ourselves, others, the world, and life in general through a unique set of lenses. Those lenses are shaped by the complex, dynamic interaction of our innate (think "born-with") personality style, innate abilities, family of origin, life experiences, socio-economic status, ethnicity, values, faith perspective, and more. Because we've never known life without those specific lenses, we subconsciously assume that others see things the same way, too.
This assumption creates confusion when we bump into differences in others’ perceptions. How are they not seeing this situation the way that I am? How can they look at the same problem and come up such a different solution? How did they get that from what I said?
This confusion causes relational disconnect, which in turn generates bottom-line consequences of various shapes and sizes. Because everything in life directly or indirectly involves relationships--even when it is simply our relationship with ourselves (Ha! There's nothing simple about that relationship.)--relational disconnect is ever-present, at best distracting, and at worst downright destructive.
The Problem Personified
For the first 14 years of my adult professional life, I worked closely with a team member whose technical competency was never in question. For 11-ish of those 14 years, though... I won’t say our collaboration was a disaster, but it was close. We both wanted to do our jobs well, and we knew doing a good job required good collaboration, but “good collaboration” continued to elude us. Try as I might, and seemingly even the harder I tried, the worse it got. Things were heading downhill. I was stumped.
One day, at wit’s end, I asked him if he’d be willing to have an extended 1-1 visit in our company cafe. To my shame as a leader, it was the first time he and I had ever really engaged on a level that was any deeper than transactional. That visit resulted in nothing short of a miraculous turnaround in our relationship and in the quality of the work we did together in the years ahead. Through the insight he was gracious to give me into his life’s story, I became aware of how utterly different the lenses were through which he viewed the world than mine. I had a chance to try on his glasses, so to speak, and see the world through his lenses. Empathy bloomed. And though we still had very different lenses, we both saw much more clearly why our relationship struggled so badly.
Remarkably, the insights gained that day were sufficient to bridge the gaping, 11-year disconnect between us. Even more remarkably, in the days and years that followed, we became more than just productive colleagues who got along decently. We became true friends. And to this day, I would call him in a heartbeat if (metaphorically speaking, of course) I had a body to bury in the middle of the night.
Clearing Up the Confusion
Admittedly, the story I shared above contains a dramatic turnaround: “Results not typical,” as the footnote on prescription drug commercials tells us. I was extremely fortunate that my colleague was willing to share transparently with me on a more personal level. And, no doubt, the very existence of a different kind of conversation--one that acknowledged him as a unique person instead of a resource to be allocated--was huge on its own. But this story nevertheless highlights the reality that relational disconnect, big or small, doesn't have to persist, and downstream consequences can be avoided. It doesn’t take desperate times and desperate measures to do it.
The first step is to acknowledge that we actually have a unique set of lenses, and so does everyone else. This is no small step, as the story above illustrates. I successfully avoided it for a long time. Once taken, though, this step opens up the port from which we can embark on a new and life-long voyage of deepening self-awareness: What picture of myself, others, the world, and life in general do my lenses create? In what ways does that picture work well for me? In what ways does it not work well for me?
Early legs of this voyage can be navigated more efficiently with the support of assessments, like Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (personality style) and 360 feedback. Some legs require a different approach--especially when it involves understanding how our unique lenses have been shaped by our family of origin, life experiences, etc. These legs require self-reflection, feedback from family and friends, and a new level of real-time attention to how we think and act in the world. Sometimes, a therapeutic approach is useful to unpack areas in which we are chronically and painfully stuck.
Upgrading Our Lenses
It’s encouraging to know that we’re not stuck with the lenses we bring into adulthood. We can upgrade them where we discover an upgrade would be useful. In fact, as adults, we have a distinct advantage over our juvenile selves: We have greater capacity for self-determination. I believe we have a corresponding responsibility for it, too. As children, many of the influences that shaped our lenses were outside of our control, and we had neither the physical, psychological, or emotional capacity to proactively integrate them. Rather, we reacted and did the best we could. Generally speaking, positive inputs positively shaped our lenses, and negative inputs did the opposite--with little conscious intervention from us. (Fellow parents, let’s take heed!)
If we are willing to do the work (it is challenging work, make no mistake), we can reshape the lenses through which we view ourselves, others, the world, and life in general. The key to upgrading our lenses is doing something differently as a result of the insights we gain through self-awareness work. Self-awareness work comes first, but it doesn't yield meaningful change on its own. Action, however, converts static self-awareness into improved self-management in the real world with real-world impact. Our strengths are leveraged better and the impact of our weaknesses is increasingly minimized. We begin to see more clearly the nature of the differences between us and others that once annoyed us or caused outright conflict and appreciate others more. All of this leads to more productive and enjoyable relationships in all spheres of life.
In the professional setting, individuals more accurately and objectively appraise their own strengths and weaknesses, colleagues begin to leverage each others' strengths and complement one another's weaknesses, trust and interdependency increase, enjoyment of one another and the work increases, and ultimately (assuming the underlying business model is adequate) profit goes up.
In short, personally and professionally, we get better results.
Much More Can Be Said
This just begins to scratch the surface, of course. Our unique lenses don’t tell the whole story of relational disconnect and its consequences. What part does character--kindness, mercy, honesty, courage, etc.--play in how we view the world and resolve relational disconnect, for example? What specifically can we do when we encounter a particularly stubborn crack in our lenses that resists our best, most earnest upgrade attempts? How do we learn to genuinely appreciate others when they’re SO different from us? What if there is a fundamental lack of goodwill? And where does a lack of goodwill come from, anyway?
These and many other questions have been debated for millenia and will be for millenia more. What we can see, though, let’s resolve to use. What we can do, let’s resolve to do--however small that thing might be. In fact, it's usually better to "go small in order to go big."
So, where are you? What’s one thing you could do differently today that would help you get to know your unique lenses better and use them even more effectively?