The Lens Problem

A few days back I got a funny forward which went something like this

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes!

It becomes much easier to criticize or advise someone else if we see them going through a similar experience ourselves. And most of the times, we land up getting frustrated when we see them not listening to us.

Social psychologist Nick Epley has devoted his career trying to figure out why we misunderstand others. You can read his book entitled Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

All of us gaze out at the world through our own personal perspective — a filter so fixed and all-pervasive that we hardly realize it exists. We thus have a tendency to assume that other people perceive and process the world the same way that we do. Epley calls this “the lens problem.” This gets in the way of our ability to communicate; you may think that someone should naturally understand something, because you can understand it quite well in your own mind. Instead of seeking to understand how someone else is seeing things, we try to solve their unique issues by applying our own framework to them.

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People gives a metaphor for this lens problem, by using the example of literal lenses.

Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and hands them to you.

‘Put these on,’ he says. ‘I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now, and they’ve really helped me.’

‘This is terrible! I can’t see a thing!’ you exclaim.

‘Well, what’s wrong?’ he asks. ‘They work great for me. Try harder.’

‘I am trying,’ you insist. ‘Everything is a blur.’

‘Well, what’s the matter with you? Think positively.’

‘Okay. I positively can’t see a thing.’

‘Boy, are you ungrateful!’ he chides. ‘And after all I’ve done to help you!’

Would you go back to such a doctor? Certainly not. He didn’t even try to understand how you saw the world and just assumed what worked for him would work for you; as Covey puts it, he prescribed before he diagnosed.

You wouldn’t want that kind of guy for a doctor, and people don’t want that kind of person as a friend, co-worker, or husband either. If you really want to understand people, you can’t assume they see things through the same lens you do, and you can’t solve their problem by trying to make them look through it too; you need to see things from their perspective!

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