A client’s customer service group was very upset about how dissatisfied some of their customers were with their company. One of the reps spoke quite negatively about how terrible their products were, because “everyone was unhappy with them.”
After a little research, it turned out that “everyone” wasn’t unhappy, not even everyone who was calling for customer service. When we reviewed the statistics, and the rep saw how tiny the percentage of actual complaints was compared with the large number of sales, she felt relieved. And after the group discussed alternatives for working with unhappy customers to mend and strengthen their relationships with the company, well, this particular rep became positively energized and excited about the good she could do and the way she could help both “her” customers and her company.
When you step back from the thumbnail sketch of a single experience (think: several very unhappy customers every day for several days) to the big picture of aggregated data (think: significant numbers of sales, minimal returns, etc.), you get a completely different view. The painter Chuck Close demonstrates this shift in perspective. Close uses small, intricately painted shapes in various colors to create large portraits that are almost photographic in their exactitude. I found a wonderful clip of Close with Big Bird of Sesame Street so you can see for yourself:
Did you hear the last child who speaks in the clip? “It was tricky.” What an accurate description! Understanding the composite reality of our experiences can be tricky! Describing reality in a way that helps you take positive action can be even trickier, but when you do, you can shift yourself out of your negative view and create a more thoughtful, optimistic, progressive response.
Four Practices of Improved Interpretation
Here are several more examples to give you some practice making the shift.
- At a recent public event, a member of the organizing staff complained bitterly about the noisiness of the latecomers in the overflow section. It’s true they were noisy, but in the larger picture this was a good problem, because the large overflow showed the event was successful.
- In these resource-strapped times, a common employee complaint is about being short-staffed and desperately overworked. Yes, there may be all kinds of planning, process, and procedural issues to discuss and to resolve; but in the meantime, for the overburdened staffers, the upside is job security. After pausing for a moment of gratitude we can set priorities, try to work smarter, and think about how to orient and integrate the new employees who will eventually be hired.
- A dear friend was frustrated about the number of people who ask him for advice and counsel, but don’t provide any support for him in return. He felt sufficiently burnt out to consider withdrawing from many of them. “Why do you think that happens?” I asked him, smiling. “Because I know how to listen to them — and I actually know how to help, and they don’t?” he theorized, smiling back. “Okay,” he went on, “I guess I just needed to vent a little so I can go on with them.”
- A client found an office bully in the middle of one of her work groups and became overwhelmed trying to reassure and comfort the bully’s victims. I encouraged her to step back and look for a more productive, comprehensive resolution. When she gave herself time and space to observe, she saw that it would be better to deal directly with the bully, set appropriate boundaries, and get everyone back to their real work.
Is there an example of something in your day or in your job that feels like a complete negative until you enlarge your perspective, step back from the trees, and scan the forest? Consider the flip side, and see if a positive view emerges when you look with a longer lens, or from a higher altitude. It’s not just a silver lining — it’s that from another perspective, the cloud can actually be a decorative element that shows off the rest of the blue sky. See if you can figure out the right angle — and work from there!
Onward and upward,