When we take on a new client, we test for 12 essential human skills. One of these is the ability to enter the other’s reality. Successful people can see and feel what the world looks like through another person’s eyes.
Election times, for example, highlight how difficult this can be. Even though most recognize democracy brings with it the responsibility to understand opposing viewpoints, this is easier to say than to do. With everyone accessing their personal aggregated news feed, the world for most people looks dangerously polarized. People are living in completely different realities. We can’t get our heads around how the other side could think that way. Similarly in couples work. Unless you can enter your partner’s reality, it is tough to have a mature relationship.
Here are three keys to developing that skill.
1. Own Your Judgements
It is not necessary to agree in order to understand. People hesitate to enter the other’s reality out of a belief—usually unconscious—that to do so would change us, infect us in some bad way or betray our core values. Mistaking our point of view for who we are. It turns out the reverse is true: when you see the world through another’s point of view, you get clearer on who you are and what you stand for.
Just because you understand where someone is coming from does not mean you justify their behavior. It does not mean you can’t vigorously oppose, feel disgust or bring consequences.
The key to clear seeing is to know your own prejudices and values, not to get rid of them (if that were even possible). I suggest people adopt the practice of setting aside quiet time with a list of four names, people whose reality you are curious to enter today. As you consider each person, notice the reactions that come up for you. Notice also that these need not impede your field of view. Be interested anyway to feel into their reality, to see what they are seeing.
2. Big Want
There’s a difference between what we see when we look at someone—what they say and what they do—and what he or she is seeing, the reality in which they live. To enter the other’s reality, you are mining for what drives their actions and their advocacy.
The first important driver is what they really want, their core value or desire. As you are curious, you will find the clues that point to the big want. Don’t stop at your initial perception. Keep going deeper. What is driving this person? Ask questions that might shed light on this. Find someone who knows this person well, and ask them. I find it helpful also to have a dozen or so example big wants on hand—love, freedom, truth, peace and so on—to help me perceive what it might be for this particular person.
3. Big Risk
The second important driver is what they are avoiding. To engage with another person’s fears takes a high level of self awareness. Almost certainly, the other person’s fear will trigger you in some way. Distract you perhaps into making it right or making it wrong. In this practice, investigate innocently: you just want to see what is, as it is. You want to see the risks they are most concerned about and, ultimately, the person they are trying not to be. Again, I find it helpful to have example big risks on hand—loser, fake, controlling, weak, selfish, egotist, elite, and so on.
When you understand a person’s core value and their deep fear, you are entering their reality. Through this kind of practice, something remarkable happens. Not only are we more successful at inspiring teams or loving relationships, we make a powerful discovery about who we are. The reality of who we are is bigger than our point of view.
There is a lot of talk today about coming together. The attempt to adjust my point of view to be more like yours, and get others to adjust theirs to be more like ours, seems doomed to falter. At that level, our realities are already way too polarized.
However, when we practice entering the other’s reality, we no longer need to protect our values by experiencing others as if they are of a different species. Without in any way lessening our passion, our activism for and service to what matters most to us, we are able to hold, relate with and bring the best out of people who live in many polar realities.