“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
// Henry Ford
In the 1980s, back when some commercials were worth watching, The Guardian released a TV ad that has stuck with me. The ad depicts what appears to be a skinhead chasing after a well-dressed man in order to rob him of his briefcase.
But as the commercial nears its end, the camera zooms out and the perspective shifts. The skinhead, who was seemingly out to get the businessman and do bad things to him, is actually there to save him from an impending building collapse.
The ability to zoom out of our perspective is an increasingly rare skill.
We’re living in isolated echo chambers that make it exceedingly difficult to see someone else’s truth. Although technology tore down some global barriers, it ended up erecting others. We follow people like us on social media. We regurgitate the same 140-character (now “upgraded” to 280) talking points. Silicon Valley uses advanced algorithms to display only the type of information that vibrates at your frequency.
It’s become blasphemous to even read newspapers of an opposing ideology. When a liberal friend found out that I had published an article in the Wall Street Journal, a flicker of disapproval passed over her face. Glossing over the article’s content, she asked, “Why would you want to publish there?”
I observe this phenomenon acutely in the law school classes I teach. The other side’s arguments are “absurd” or “nonsense.” The court’s decision is “insulting.” It’s the rare student who can acknowledge even the potential of merit on the opposing side.
When we prefer Schadenfreude over understanding, a punch to the gut over empathy, we solidify the other person’s perspective. Once we equate someone’s ideas with idiocy, we’ve lost the battle. Persuading that person to shift their perspective will require nothing short of a self-destructive admission that they’re unintelligent.
The next time you’re tempted to immediately attack someone’s argument, first paraphrase it in the best possible light. Ask if you articulated the argument correctly. Explain the points of agreement before expressing where you disagree. Once you demonstrate the ability to shift your perspective, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the other person’s defenses dissolve.
Your perspective shapes and determines your reality. It’s easy to forget that if you had lived someone else’s life, you might have turned out just like them.
Yet, we refuse to make eye contact with people of different persuasions, let alone see the world through their eyes. We don’t bother to walk a mile in their shoes (that way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes, as Jack Handey would say).
Here’s the thing: If you disagree with someone, it’s not because you’re right, and they’re wrong. It’s because they believe something that you don’t believe. They have a different perspective that you’re missing.
The Russians have a different perspective on who won the space race. Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, they would argue, came too late. After all, the Soviet Union racked up most of the firsts in spaceflight: First artificial satellite (Sputnik), first animal in orbit (Laika, a dog found wandering the streets of Moscow), the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first human to perform a spacewalk (Alexey Leonov).
The Dutch have a different perspective on putting mayonnaise on french fries, as memorialized in the great movie Pulp Fiction (“I seen ‘em do it man, they fuckin’ drown ‘em in it”). The British have a different perspective on driving on the right side of the road. Many South Americans have a different perspective on meeting times—which they believe to be elastic—making late arrivals the fashionable norm, not the rude exception.
This is why traveling to a foreign country can jolt us out of our isolated perspective. The French call this depaysement, the disorientation you feel when you’re in a strange land. When we stay at a local apartment rather than a posh hotel, when we try local coffee instead of retreating to a Starbucks caramel macchiato, when we get lost (in a safe neighborhood) instead of remaining within the comfort of zone touristique, we force our brains to employ new neural pathways. We realize that our perspective is manufactured and our reality can be altered.
But you don’t need to travel to distant lands to shift your perspective. All it takes is genuine curiosity, a willingness to step out of our echo chamber, and a determination to make space for different points of view.