On seeing and being seen

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspectives recently. I’ve also written before about the value of different perspectives from a leadership point of view. But, lately, because of something lovely that someone did for me at work, I’ve also experienced what it’s like to be seen.

We see things, and people, all the time. For those of us with sight, it’s an automatic activity. And yet, a lot of what we see is filtered by our brains. As a result, we make inaccurate witnesses to events we are present for because we have so many cognitive filters on the world. For example, because of the automatic nature of what we do when experienced drivers, we often recall little to nothing of the cars we see on our journey to work. Our brain filters out a lot of the visual stimuli – how many red cars did you pass on the way to the office the last time you drove in? You probably have no idea.

We also filter people without meaning to do so. I don’t mean that we edit people out of our worldview, but we don’t always notice people the way we should. I think this can happen when we’re very familiar with someone – we don’t always take time to observe them. So, for example, my wife will not notice if I trim my beard (although she may notice if I don’t, oddly). Likewise, I won’t always see that she has coloured her hair.

Sometimes this lack of observation can feel like a lack of caring. At other times it can be seen for what it is – attentional deficit due to overload or brain filters kicking in for different reasons.

These examples are trivial, by and large. What matters more is when we miss seeing someone for who they are. Conversely, it matters enormously to people when we see them as they see themselves and as they behave.

At the closing event of a leadership development program I co-lead, my co-chair took the time to recognise me publically for the work I do in this area and others. She used thoughtful, insightful language to describe my impact on the program and on the people I interact with and support. She closed the event by saying to me, “We see you, and we recognise you”, in front of over one hundred people. I was genuinely moved by this – not because of the “recognition” in corporate-speak, but because she sees me. No one has ever so clearly articulated this to me in twenty-eight years of a career.

Apart from being awed by the skills that my colleague displayed (and being emotionally ambushed, in a lovely way) I was struck by how much it means to be seen. For our impact on the world to be noted and played back to us. It reinforces the message that what we do matters. It provides the best kind of incentive to continue doing what we do. But, more importantly, it recognises our humanity; to be seen is to be valued, and to be valued is to be human.

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