We all crave secret powers. As kids we image we can leap over buildings or stop moving trains with a single raised hand or become invisible when danger lurks near-by. These are the magical powers of Super-Heros. Although we may crave them as children, we now know that they exist solely in our imagination.
There is however, a real power that potentially all of us have. Those few who cultivate and master this power, suddenly appear like they have super powers, especially when it comes to solving difficult problems. It's the power to get into the thinking, feeling and behavior of another person. To crawl into the skin of another and hang out for a while. Its the power to imagine what life looks like from another perspective. What happens to those who try to see the world through another's eyes? This task becomes more daunting when we feel that the other person is the problem or antagonist.
What if we learned that we all had this power for shape shifting or seeing the world from the other's point of view? All that is required of us is the willingness to try.
Recently, a high ranking military officer was referred to me for coaching. Her career was in jeopardy because she was in conflict with her boss, a 3-star general. My client's responsibility was to protect a key communication site from cyber attack. She took her responsibility very seriously, knowing the damage to our defenses, if this site was to fail during an attack. The problem was that the technology at this site was old and vulnerable to the latest kinds of electronic attacks. She had spoken to the general, who listened to her analysis and said or did very little. As the weeks went by, she became more concerned and felt she must convince her boss to take immediate action. So she began a campaign of daily calls to his office and more frequent emails.
From her point of view, the general seemed lethargic. Perhaps he was stonewalling her or worse, he was incapable of making a timely decision. Lives were on the line so she kept pushing. Finally, the general's aid told her to stop bombarding him with her calls. This made her feel so frustrated she began thinking of resigning her commission and taking the issue to the media.
I asked her if she would be willing to try a new strategy, before escalating the conflict? She said "Okay, but I don't think anything will help at this point." I asked her to tell me the general's story. She gave me a half grin and said, "that's easy, he's a jerk." I replied that that response was still her story and not his. I asked her to think about what area of his work does he care most passionately about? What are his primary responsibilities? What keeps him up at night and what makes him howl at the moon?
She just looked at me for a long time. Her green eyes began to lose that hard narrow stare and her mouth relaxed and lost that angry leering grin. Finally she said, "I don't know. I never thought about him or his problems in that way." I gave her the assignment of discovering new information about the general. I suggested she talk to her colleagues and even speak with those members of the general's staff she had not completely alienated. I challenged her to let go of her story for now and walk in his shoes.
When she returned to my office, a week later, she looked more relaxed and grounded. She said that she couldn't believe she had so totally missed the mark on this issue. "I learned that he agreed with my assessment but his responsibilities cover 50 sites. He has limited resources and can't fix all the sites at once so he has prioritized which sites get immediate attention and which need to wait. I still think he's wrong in not making my site one of the first to get an upgrade." Then she began to smile, "so I guess he's not a total write-off."
I congratulated her and asked her to take one more step. "See if you can find a way to merge your two stories so that the general is not the bad guy in your story. How can you frame the story so that you both can sit down on the same side of the table and together look at a common problem?" It must have worked because she didn't resign or get fired, and a year later she was promoted.