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A Matter of Perspective

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While my family and I are in Germany on Sabbatical, our children are attending the local school, and although our children speak German, studying in German and understanding a different culture’s way of doing things sometimes causes our children to run into barriers. For example, our son (who is in Grade 6) needed several textbooks for his classes.  Several times his teachers sent him to get these books from a specific location in the school. When our son arrived at the place where he believed he was meant to pick up his books, he was told either that he was in the wrong place or that he had come at the wrong time.  After several attempts to find his textbooks our son came home in tears.  My husband visited the school to see whether he might be able to help solve the situation.  My husband was told the following:  Textbooks can only be picked up Wednesdays from 10:55am – 11:15am (!) in a specific, easy-to-find room in the school.  My husband searched for the easy-to-find room so he could let our son know exactly where it was.  Although he did find the room eventually, he found it difficult to find.

I am sharing this story not because of the German school system, but to consider the theme of differences in perspective.  The school had specifically told my husband that the textbook room was easy to find, but my husband found the room difficult to find.  Why this difference in perspective? The staff members of the school know it well.  As a result, they are blocked from seeing with the eyes of an outsider.  They physically cannot see what an outsider sees.  By the same token, the newcomer cannot see with the eyes of someone who has been in the school for several months or years.  There is also a cultural difference here.  As Canadians, our family carries certain assumptions about how the school community functions that differ from German assumptions.

Our son was eventually able to find the right room at the right time and received his textbooks.  This experience, though, is symbolic of conflict generally. People have an enormously difficult time seeing through lenses that are not their own, whether those lenses are defined culturally, by personality or by the landscape of their experience.  This dynamic is so powerful, one hardly recognizes that a different perspective might even exist.  Once one reaches a decision regarding one’s perspective on a given matter – whether consciously or unconsciously – that perspective is locked into place.  Indeed, perspective emerges from and is aligned so strongly with one’s life experience, together with a corollary trust in one’s own logic, it is easily perceived as a matter of identity.

Getting into another person’s shoes is not easy for the simple reason that we need to get out of our own shoes before we can enter another’s shoes.  We need to let go of our own assumptions before we can as fully as possible understand another’s. Anything short of this discipline leaves us at risk of stumbling about blindly in our relationships, bumping into each other and sometimes causing frustration, other times causing harm.  In conflict, most of us don’t want to get out of our own shoes.  Our shoes are our place of security.  They represent the ground we stand on.  Getting out of our shoes feels like we are losing ourselves.  This is especially true when we have nurtured a deep attachment to our view of what happened.  It also means risking that there may be truth in the other’s perspective.  When we are entrenched, this is not typically what we want to hear.  It is an act of tremendous commitment and humility – indeed it is a spiritual discipline – to get out of our own shoes in order to get into another’s.  Where we plant our feet is directly related to our ability to see.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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