“Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both before we commit ourselves to either.” ~Aesop
The teacher walked into the room to see one boy punch the other in the arm. Quickly, she chastised the offender and checked to be sure the victim was ok. “But Teacher,” said the offender, “he hit me first…” The teacher was sure of what she had seen, and only one child sat out at recess that day. The policeman pulled over the speeding car and as the driver tried to explain what happened that he was driving so fast, the officer admonished him for breaking the law, remarking that he didn’t need to hear an excuse. Yes, the student punched the other student. Yes, the driver was traveling over the speed limit. Yes, but… It was true that these people appeared to have made bad choices but there were reasons, good reasons. Maybe the other student should have been punished for his actions, too. Maybe the driver could have gotten off with a warning because he was hurrying to get to the hospital where his wife was dying. As Aesop noted, there are two sides to every truth, but it would seem we seldom look at both before we commit ourselves to one.
In my life, I have had a handful of times in which relationships have been permanently changed because of someone’s thinking there was only one side to the truth. When I have been at fault, I’ve usually attempted, almost begged, to apologize for my rush to judgment. I like relationships to be harmonious. It’s much more difficult when the other person rushes to judgment and worse when others believe that as truth. If you’ve ever been on the judged side, you surely know that it was no fable of Aesop’s — there really are two sides to every truth, there is always another side to the story. How valuable do you think it is to hear the other side to your truth?
No one you meet has the same story you have. Our experiences — of childhood when the popular kid made fun of us or as adults when we thought we were at the top of our game and lost everything — affect how we behave in situations every single day. A friend of mine, having heard me mention the importance of recognizing that there are two sides to every story, mentioned that in her business, retreat clients are taught this very thing. Taking time to interview one of the other participants, they are then asked to introduce the other person as if they were the other person. What a unique concept!
I love the idea from Mark Goulston and John Ullmen (Harvard Business Review) that we need to come from our here to their there. While their idea was written for business people looking to influence others, it applies to each of us as we take the time to discover there is another side to the truth which we hadn’t considered. The only way for us to achieve that is for us to listen to the other side, and that is something too few of us are willing to do.
Maybe we don’t listen well to other people because we are afraid of knowing someone else’s truth, of knowing that our side of truth isn’t the only one. If you’ve talked to me for very long about many issues, you know that I believe fear naturally drives many of the choices we make. Fear can hold us back and fear can motivate us. If I grew up not knowing where the next meal would come from, it might be the fear of being hungry which will drive me to find a way to always have plenty. If you are afraid of your superiors thinking you aren’t doing a good job, you might take your fear and impose it on those working under you. I believe it is fear that keeps us from wanting to understand another person’s situation or perspective.
I’ll challenge you, though, to trust that there is nothing more empowering than offering compassion, empathy, and awareness to another person. There is nothing that will make us greater humans than listening to (and hearing) people’s stories of why their there is so far from our here.
I asked my friend what the takeaway was after hearing participants introduce themselves as if they were the other person, and it was this: “The information they know, how they listened, what they remember about what the other person said, is not enough to do that kind of an introduction about the other person. They did not listen well enough, they did not ask enough questions.”
It seems to me, then, that our job this week is to ask questions and to listen to the things said (and not said) so that we might better understand why another person’s there seems so far away from our here. Maybe next week, we can take the two sides of the story and figure out how to bring better things to our lives, to our companies, and to our classrooms, but for today let’s begin with recognizing that someone else’s version of the truth isn’t necessarily right or wrong. Let’s begin with honoring the possibility that when your side and mine come together, we might discover a better truth.