07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Person We See and the Person They See

As a Ph.D. student at UCLA in the early 70's, I had a self-image of being "hip" and "cool". In my mind I was deeply involved in topics such as deeper human understanding, self-actualization, and uncovering profound wisdom. Early in my Ph.D. program, I was a student in an interesting class (with twelve other people) led by a very wise teacher -- Dr. Bob Tannenbaum. Bob had invented the term "sensitivity training," published the most widely distributed article in the Harvard Business Review, and was a full professor. He was a very important person in our school.

In Bob's class, we were encouraged to discuss anything we wanted. I started out by talking about people in Los Angeles. For three full weeks I did a monologue about how "screwed up" people in Los Angeles were. "They wear these expensive sequined blue gold Rolls Royces around...they are plastic and materialistic... all they care about is impressing others -- they really do not understand what is deep and important in life." (It was easy for me to be an expert on the people of Los Angeles. I had, after all, grown up in Valley Station, Kentucky.)

After listening to me babble for three weeks, Bob looked at me quizzically and asked, "Marshall, who are you talking to?"

"I am speaking to the group," I answered.

"Who in the group are you talking to?"

"Well, I guess that I am talking to everybody," I replied, not quite knowing where he was headed with this line of questioning.

Bob then commented, "I don't know if you realize this, but each time you have spoken you have looked at only one person. You have addressed your comments toward only one person. And you seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that one person?"

"That is interesting. Let me think about it," I replied. Then (after careful consideration) I said, "You?"

He said, "That's right, me. There are twelve other people in this room. Why don't you seem interested in any of them?"

Now that I had dug myself into a hole, I decided to a little deeper. I said, "You know Dr. Tannenbaum, I think a person with your background can understand the true significance of what I am saying. I think that you appreciate how 'screwed-up' it is to run around and try to impress people all the time. I believe that you have a deep understanding of what is really important in life."

Bob looked at me and said, "Marshall -- is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you have been doing is trying to do is impress me?"

I was amazed at Bob's obvious lack of insight! "Not at all!" I declared. "I don't think you have understood one thing I have said! I have been explaining to you how screwed up it is to try to impress other people. I think you have totally missed my point and frankly, I am a little disappointed in your lack of understanding!"

He looked at me, scratched his beard, and concluded, "No. I think I understand."

I looked around and saw twelve people scratching their faces and thinking, "Yes. We understand."

I had a deep dislike for Dr. Tannenbaum for six months. I devoted a lot of energy into figuring out his psychological problems and understanding why he was confused. After 6 months it finally dawned on me that the person with the issue about impressing other people wasn't him. It wasn't even the people in Los Angeles. The person with the real issue was me. I finally looked in the mirror and said, "You know, old Dr. Tannenbaum was exactly right."

Two of the great lessons that I began to understand from this experience were:

1) It is a whole lot easier to see our problems in others than it is to see them in ourselves and 2) even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.

As human beings there is almost always a discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self that the rest of the world sees in us. The lesson that I learned (and that I strive in my professional work to help others understand) is that the rest of the world often has a more accurate perspective than we do. If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity to learn. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to align our stated values with our actual behavior.

I have told this story hundreds of times and I have thought about it more frequently than that. Often when I become self-righteous, preachy, "holier than thou," or angry about some perceived injustice, I eventually realize that the deeper issue is usually not with them. The deeper issue is usually in me.

Today most of my work is with executives in large organizations. I provide them with confidential feedback, which allows them to compare their behavior (as perceived by others) with their desired behavior. I try to help them deal with this feedback in a positive way, learn from it, and (eventually) become a better role model for the desired leadership behavior in their organizations. The lesson that I learned from Bob Tannenbaum has not only helped me in my personal life; it has also helped shape the course of my professional life.

What really bothers you about the "rest of the world"?

Is there a chance that some of your concerns may be a reflection of your problems, not theirs?

How can honest feedback from others help you in aligning your values with your behavior?

Readers - I am looking forward to connecting with you in the future! Any reflections or comments from you will be greatly appreciated.

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