If You Want Authentic Perspective, Stop Guessing and Start Asking
I had a beer today with a man I’ve known for less than four months. Though our collaboration has been short-lived, Gary Chenault is quickly becoming both a friend and a guiding light for the difficult waters I, and each living soul in this world, must learn to navigate more compassionately. Gary is a black man with a great career and a wonderful family, and we met to have drinks together as a result of his willingness to teach and to answer my questions. The education I received from Gary is heartbreakingly similar to several other black men who I know better; I’ll revisit their stories a little later after I share what led me to Gary on the road to perspective.
My first stop on that road, as it always is, was a Google search on the keyword “perspective,” and to my delight, I found some gems. One, in particular, has the potential to change my life and improve my personal and professional life, forever. It was a research article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Tal Eyal, Mary Steffel and Nicholas Epley titled “Perspective Mistaking: Accurately understanding the mind of another requires getting perspective, not taking perspective.”
The crux of their research asserts that we as humans are lousy guessers when it comes to understanding the perspective of others, regardless of how well we know that person. The researchers did a series of experiments and asked the subjects to put themselves in another person’s shoes about a specific topic and then predict how the other person would react to that same topic. Most interestingly, it doesn’t matter if we’ve known the person for many years or just met them, we are horribly inaccurate about the other person’s perspective when we guess.
An excerpt from a story about the research sums it up pretty well “Though it may seem that Epley believes humans are hopelessly incompetent at social interaction, he insists he’s not. In fact, he says we’re the most socially sophisticated species on the planet. The problem is hubris—thinking we understand people better than we do and jumping to conclusions that are unwarranted.”
Let me connect a few dots – we know perspective is important, but when we try to take someone else’s perspective, we suck at it, because pride leads us to jump to conclusions. Taking their perspective only gets us half-way home to truly understanding what they’re thinking or feeling, because it gets us out of our own heads. We think less about ourselves and more about them and that’s a great start. Thus, the only way to close the gap is to ask. But now it gets tricky.
It gets tricky because once you’ve asked them for their perspective, you must do two really hard things – you must listen, but even more importantly, you must create an environment where the person can answer questions you pose to them directly, honestly and openly. The eureka for me was threefold:
1) I should ask for perspective rather than guessing.
2) It is imperative that I create an environment where they feel like they want to share what they’re really thinking.
3) I need to stop and listen. And that’s where authentic concern intersects with this research and my story.
Authentic concern is about asking someone what they think without assuming you know. Authentic concern is about creating an environment where everyone feels empowered to answer the question openly and honestly without fear of being looked upon differently, disregarded or shamed for their view. Which then brings me all the way back to the beginning and my new colleague Gary Chenault.
As I watched the frustration of the black community boil over in Minneapolis, Indianapolis and many other cities, it didn’t touch me viscerally until I read the stories of black men that I considered to be good friends. Mike Asem and Ade Olanoh (you can Google their names and find their articles) are very successful businessmen, and two very mild-mannered men (not just black men) from whom I have never heard a cross word.
All three men used the same word when they described their perspective, which was jarring to me because it was a perspective that I had not ascribed to them. They all described their “rage” at the unfairness of repeatedly being singled out by police officers or other members of the white community. I had NEVER seen rage from these men, and it was then that I realized, because I had not asked and because they had not felt comfortable sharing, that I did not know their perspective. I guessed, and like the research suggested, I got it wrong.
I was wrong, and I knew it was time for me to do something different. It was time for me to ask questions, learn and gain perspective from those that have experienced racism up-close and personal. Only then can I begin to be part of the solution and not continue to perpetuate the status quo.
The first step I took was to reach out to my embarrassingly short list of black colleagues and ask them to start a dialogue about what was happening and how I could be part of the change. They responded positively to my request and that’s what brought Gary and me together. To ask him his perspective, create an environment where he could answer honestly and discuss ways to keep the momentum of change going.
We left each other knowing Gary and Brian weren’t going to change the world overnight, but that was OK because we knew the problem wasn’t created yesterday, and the only way to make real progress is to commit to the change and keep moving forward. Those who know me won’t be a bit surprised that Gary and I agreed our next meeting is going to be on the golf course.
Why the golf course? Because he asked if I played golf. It won’t always be that easy to make a connection or to understand where my colleagues stand, but I’m committing to stop guessing others’ perspectives and simply “stay curious for one more moment.”