Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Perspective on Perspective: Getting Along with Humans III

As I sat down to write this morning, I was going to explain the importance of understanding another's perspective when reconciling conflict. However, as I wrote, I realized that understanding the perspective of another doesn't matter. In fact, it's at best a distraction and at worst pure folly.

What is Perspective?
In regard to human interaction, perspective might be defined as the way each of us regards situations, facts, etc., and then judges their relative importance or significance, and their implications. Consider the burning down of rain-forests in Brazil. The dominant perspective in the northern hemisphere is that the practice is unconscionable and that it will lead to global disaster. The perspective of those burning down the forests is that the value of the rain-forests lies in logging, agriculture and ranching.

These perspectives are well documented and available to anyone involved in the debate. Yet, the debate continues, as does the burning of the rain-forests. In all cases, the facts are pretty much the same (the number of acres burned each year, the dollars spent and earned, the number of species lost, etc.) However, the implications and significance of the facts vary (impact to the ozone layer, the relative financial potential of harvesting the rain-forests as they are, the long term implications to the development of new pharmaceuticals, etc.)

To rain-forest activists (primarily living in the northern hemisphere), the governments, companies and landowners burning the forests are short-sighted and greedy. To the people burning the forests, the activists are meddlers who have no business meddling in their efforts to make a living and support an expanding population.

Valid, Yet Variable
Of course, the perspective held by each of us is better grounded in reality than the differing perspectives of others. Otherwise, why would you hold the perspective you hold? What possible reason could there be for holding a perspective not grounded in reality?

Well, among the more obvious reasons is: because it serves you. It might serve you in providing a sense of belonging to a group. It might serve you in justifying your wants and actions. It might serve you in accommodating beliefs that would otherwise have tripped sensibility-alarms that would scream day and night.

Our perspectives are more a side-effect (of our goals, wants and actions) than they are foundational in who we are. They vary from situation to situation (consider how dramatically one's perspective on health care can change after facing a serious illness). They tend to change with the winds (or at least with the time of day); there's an amazing difference between the perspective of someone just awake from a refreshing sleep and the same person after a vexing day and a long commute home.

The more sophisticated will acknowledge that each person's perspective is valid, just that some are more valid than others. BTW, valid is one of those either or words like unique. Something can not be more or less valid, it's valid or not.

Why Understanding Perspective is Important
So then, if all perspectives are valid, if they're subject to change with time and situation, why is understanding perspective so important?

It's not.

If you're really interested in closing gaps and reconciling differences, then understanding wants is much more important than understanding perspectives.

Perspectives are, by definition, artificially configured assemblages of situational facts selected based on their relative value in rationalizing and justifying wants. They cloud the underlying wants like a swarm of fruit-flies buzzing about a particularly ripe peach. If you want to get down to what's really going on, then shoo away the flies and pick up peach.

When we short-circuit perspectives charging forth to wants, we gain immediate clarity (and save a heck of a lot of time). When you get down to it, it's conflicting wants that lead to conflicting people. And yet, people seem compelled to give you their perspectives, rather than just saying what they want.

Have you noticed how often, when you ask someone what they want, they'll begin with why they want it? Or they'll lead in with a long apologetic? In cases where wants have collided , the question gets answered with why they deserve or need what they want. The "what I want" is infested with reasons, rationalizations, justifications and the like. Once rationalization and justification enter the picture, getting to the point is not unlike the task of selecting an individual chocolate from a bag that has spent a warms summer's afternoon on the back dash of a car.

Why do we cloud our wants with perspective? It's because we judge what we want or we're afraid that others will judge what we want. In fact, any time we find ourselves rationalizing or justifying, we're judging.

What to Do?
Fortunately, this article is about Getting Along with Humans, and not say, getting along with God, or getting along with the planet, or getting along with plants. It's fortunate, because as humans, at our core we tend to want the same things. We want to be happy. We want to be loved. We want the best for other in our lives. We want the freedom to pursue our desires.

Statistically, the likelihood of our wants aligning (though they might appear to be in conflict) is orders of magnitude greater than the likelihood of our perspectives aligning. As such, when we leapfrog perspective and go right to unadulterated, straight-up wants, we toss judgments out the window (at least temporarily) and find common ground.

When we get our wants out on the table, we clear the air of the haze of perspective, we free our minds from the bonds of judgment, and we begin the work of figuring out how to get everyone what he wants.

The Grow-or-Carve-the-Pie Caveat
One more thing: in order for all this to work, one must one must believe in synergy (the sum whole being greater than the sum of its parts) and in the ever-expanding pie. So often, when we finally get down to reconciling conflicting wants, we begin carving up the pie that is in front of us, rather than considering ways to grow the pie. I've never encountered situation in which the pie before me had reached its potential, nor even a small fraction of it.

Better yet, view the pie as infinite and see what happens.

So What?
This was really fun for me today. I began writing from one perspective and ended up writing something from a completely different and perhaps opposing perspective. If you haven't yet started our little 48 hour experiment applying The Seven Principles of Getting Along with Humans, perhaps you want to spend the next week conducting experiments in perspective, i.e., not having any.

Next time you want something, cut to the chase and say what it is. Next time someone begins a litany of rationalization and justification, interrupt her and ask, "So, what is that you want?"

I'd love to hear how things change (or not).

Happy Sunday,

P.S. As Iris and I rode home from the coffee shop, we talked about the roll of "why?" in clarifying wants. Often times our stated wants are not specific and clear; at other times, they're intermediate wants and not the end goal (e.g., "I want you to stop watching television at night" may be an intermediate want along the way to "I'd like it quiet so that I can sleep.")

I think there's an important distinction to be made me between "why's" that justify and "why's" that clarify. If we start from the position that all our wants are valid, then there's no place for nor requirement for "why's" of justification. So, "why" has a roll, but only insofar as it provides clarity and specificity.

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