We are all the heroes of our own storiesRebecca Solnit
When we think about what’s happening, what we are really doing is thinking about what’s happening to us. This isn’t selfishness or self-absorption, it is human nature. Yet it immediately creates a distorted, or at the very least partially distorted, view of the events enfolding.
There are multiple movies and books that play with the concept of different/ partial points of view. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (most famously perhaps The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), Jackie Brown and many other Tarantino movies. When done well, this allows us to get a full picture (or a fuller picture) of what’s going on, while also gaining an understanding of each character’s motivations and beliefs.
If you want the three-minute version, Gee Officer Krupke, from West Side Story, sees a “juvenile delinquent” being passed to a cop, a judge, a therapist, a social worker and back to the cop while each profession gives their perspective of what’s going on for our character. Talk about efficient storytelling – here is youth crime, explained concisely with music, dance, humour and a surprising poignancy…
Or think of Pink’s Just Give Me a Reason, which compares two completely different takes on what is happening in a couple. She thinks they are about to break up. He has no idea what’s going on.
Looking at other points of view
We are all the heroes of our own stories. But what happens if you try to see the story from another hero’s point of view?
The ability to see the same story from different perspective is critical to success in all relationships, including in the workplace. In my experience, most conflicts in the workplace come from a misunderstanding of, or at worst a refusal to understand, the other party’s point of view.
Think about this situation: you go in for a difficult conversation with your boss. She has been very hard on you recently and once again you know she will be giving you negative feedback, which you think is unwarranted.
In this conversation, you are the hero and main character, obviously. She immediately can only become the villain or antagonist. As a villain, you will be ascribing her a series of nefarious motives – this is how we think about villains, in our story-led brains. Maybe she is trying to get you to resign. Maybe she enjoys being mean to people. Maybe she just doesn’t know what she is doing and is trying to cover it up by being unreasonably tough.
All of these, in the scenarios in your head, make perfect sense. If you discuss them with friends and colleagues, they may well agree that they make sense. They will be focusing on the inner logic of the story – why is the villain doing what they are doing?
But what if we rewrite the story from her perspective? What if she becomes the hero? Who is the villain then? Is there a villain? Maybe this is a buddy comedy and she is trying to bring you on her team? Or maybe you are (gasp!) a side character in a completely different story you are not seeing at all – pressure from her management, a difficult client who keeps complaining, a teenage daughter who is being very difficult…
You don’t know, do you? But what if you find out?
An incredibly powerful version of this reframing is Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which considers the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre. You know Bertha, the mad woman locked in the attic? The one who tries to kill Jane, kill Rochester, and then commits suicide?
But in Jane Eyre, we only ever hear Bertha’s story through Jane and Rochester’s point of view. And one could say they might not be completely objective on the subject. Jane Eyre is written in the first person. It doesn’t even pretend to not have a point of view.
Yet before Wide Sargasso Sea, I had never questioned Bertha’s villain status. She is the antagonist! Surely it’s quite normal for her husband to have locked her in an attic for years. She is mad! So says Rochester, and so say her brother, and so says Jane, and there we go.
We also have very little information on Bertha, and when the brain doesn’t have enough data, it tends to fill in the gaps, rather than, say, display a dialog box saying “not enough information to compute”…
Jean Rhys rewrites this from Bertha’s (or Antoinette’s) perspective and suddenly, it is as if a veil is lifted. Suddenly we can’t unsee her side of the story, and suddenly Rochester is not quite the hero we all want him to be.
So the first question to ask yourself in this effort to defocus your version of the story is – am I creating a Bertha?
A caveat: learning to change the filter
We aren’t bad people, on the whole. But we are hard-wired to think of others as ourselves – which means it can be very hard to understand and empathise with other people’s lived experiences. A lot of prejudice comes from applying the filter we apply to ourselves, when sometimes an entirely different filter is needed. Unconscious bias means our brain have applied a certain filter without us being even aware of it. These are difficult processes to dismantle, and outside help is usually needed. The rewards are immense, though.
Sharing your story
It’s incredibly useful to try to understand somebody else’s story. But sometimes, all it takes for a complete shift in perspective is for you to share your story.
Recently a business contact cancelled our meeting for the second time, on the morning of the planned meeting. My first reaction was deep annoyance. My second thought was that she didn’t want to meet and was stringing me along.
Then I read the email.
“I have family in India who have been affected by the Covid crisis”, she said, “and the last few weeks have been quite complicated.”
Well. Who is the villain now?
Or rather, who is the side character in what must have been a very difficult period for her?
It may have felt quite vulnerable to write this in the cancellation email. But when we did finally have the meeting, instead of arriving annoyed and defensive, I arrived grateful that in the middle of all this she would still find the time to connect.
A simple sentence can entirely transform someone’s perspective. Share your story!
The Greek Chorus
Unreliable first person narration is a great writing trick that is quite difficult to replicate in movies and plays (counter-examples include The Usual Suspects or Memento). In most cases, the audience takes on the role of the all-knowing Greek Chorus instead.
In West Side Story, we are shown the two widely divergent perspectives of the Jets and the Sharks, and when tragedy unfolds, it is made more powerful by knowing that it was avoidable. In the series 24, the screenwriters were careful to make sure the audience knew the suspects Jack Bauer was torturing were in fact bad guys (even though Jack himself didn’t know it), to keep us firmly on Jack’s side. In most romantic comedies, from Shakespeare to Netflix, we see the central couple fall in love long before they realise it themselves. Perspective is everything.
How would it look like, you might ask yourself, if you were the audience, or the Greek Chorus, to whatever is unfolding, rather than a character? What new perspective might you gain, if you positioned yourself as a spectator of the interaction with your boss? What would you see differently, if instead of reading the first person account of it, you were watching it on TV or in the cinema?
Imagine the following scene:
- The tourist who doesn’t have their travel card ready when they get to the gate and slows down the guy trying to get to work.
- The commuter who pushes through while sighing loudly.
Both annoying. Both relatable. If told in the first person, both probably ending with the main character furious at the other.
As an objective, separate observer, just a very innocuous thirty second of city living. Possibly even a bit funny.
Can you see all three now? And more importantly, will you be able to see all three next time you are either the tourist or the commuter?
Replaying the same interaction from different angles and perspectives is something you can try to do yourself, next time you are faced with a difficult interaction where emotional thoughts (‘She hates me!’ ‘He is doing this on purpose!’) are cropping up.
Or you can work with a coach to really understand what is going on and perhaps use specific techniques such as chairwork or Gestalt Coaching. Either way, never forget that the person you are dealing with is also writing a story. One where they are the hero, always.