Recently, I was asked to teach a course that focused on communication styles. As a learner, personality profiles, communication style assessments and related topics are of great interest to me; in fact, I geek out to them. While most days, I consider myself a seasoned individual in the field of learning and development, in this case, life handed me a crash course in perspective.
To prepare for the course, I did what I always do: I researched. However, I did not consider why this conversation was important for me as well. Like most large classes I teach, it was divided into different sections so that individuals could choose a section that worked best for their schedules. My first class was at 6 p.m. It was large and had a lot of energy. My next class was smaller, with only four students, and less enthusiastic. It was also at 6 a.m. in the morning – a time when I am not at my best. Four (OK, five) cups of coffee later, I am ready!
Although I received only positive feedback from my learners and their supervisors (i.e., my customers), I became discouraged when a student in an evening session informed me that a friend in the 6 a.m. class felt it was a “waste of time.” Every one of my teacher friends would tell me, “Erin, you can’t win them all. You’re not going to please every person,” but that one negative comment lingered in my head.
I was halfway through the third section of the course when the words coming out of my mouth resonated in my own mind: “Perspective is everything.” Hmm. Perspective really is everything. It isn’t our communication style that impacts our perspective; it is our perspective that impacts our communication style. Perspective plays a role in every decision we make and every experience we have.
Immediately, I thought about Florence, Italy, which few would argue is one of the beautiful cities in the world. I remembered being 20 years old in a city where I did not speak the language. It rained for two days straight, and I left Florence with pneumonia. My experience in Florence impacted my perspective on the city, and it is not one of my favorite cities.
I also thought about New Orleans. I had always heard New Orleans described as a dingy little town that smelled of alcohol and other unpleasant scents, but then, I visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to rebuild parts of the city. I stayed in an abandoned warehouse in the 9th Ward, which I was told was one of the most dangerous parts of the city. But New Orleans will always be one of the most beautiful cities I have ever encountered.
When I thought about New Orleans, I flashed back to one hot, sticky day when I cursed like a sailor as I struggled to hang drywall with my bare hands. I thought about the meals I served and the blankets I delivered. I thought about the survivors I encountered and how I cried with them in the midst of crumbling horizons. To most, New Orleans is a dingy little town that throws a great party. To me, it represents a spirit of survival and stewardship. Perspective is everything.
I continued to process these thoughts for the rest of the day, even after I left work. So much of what we do, how we live and the choices we make is influenced not by our communication styles or personality but by our perspective. Our experiences, our knowledge and our education all impact our perspective. So, how do we change it?
Change is never easy. It requires focus, open mindedness, and a willingness and desire to change. If we want our perspective to change, we must change ourselves. We must allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable, and we must listen to people with different perspectives. So often, we think that our perspective is the correct one. What if, instead, we assumed there were multiple ways to arrive at the same solution? What if we took the time to explore other solutions? We could resolve so many of our interpersonal conflicts if we could remember that not all problems have only one solution. Our teams would function with greater harmony, and we would have less workplace tension.
What is best for the group is better than what each individual wants. In order for a group to move forward as a unit, each person must be on the same page. This process doesn’t have to be a huge, life-changing event. It starts with opening our ears to truly hear what other people are saying. It starts with paying attention. If we want to be open to shifting our perspective, we must be open to changing ourselves.