climbing into another person's skin

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Climbing Into Another Person's Skin

In my book club we recently read and discussed the book, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Here is an excerpt:

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—“


“— until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I was reminded of this passage recently when I was in a coaching appointment with a client who was feeling frustrated with an employee. From the perspective of Carol (Note: I have changed the names to ensure privacy), it was a clear cut issue. The staff person, Jane, was not doing her job and instead was only completing the work that she enjoyed.

After describing her concerns, I asked Carol to pretend that she was Jane. I asked Carol to talk about the situation from this new point of view. It was fascinating for both of us to notice how easy it was for her to imagine Jane’s viewpoint. Of course, we didn’t really know if that was how Jane thought without checking it out with her. I suggested that Carol now take the point of view of another staff person in the office and describe the situation again.

From this exercise, Carol understood that there were several ways to look at the situation. She decided to meet with Jane again but to handle the meeting in a different way than she had in the past. Carol arranged a time when they could meet in private and when they would not be distracted by the phones. Carol described her concerns and her expectations of what needed to get done. She said that she wanted to find a solution to the situation that would work for both of them and needed Jane’s input. She then asked Jane to talk about how she saw her work and responsibilities and asked her to comment on Carol’s concerns.

Jane talked about how she enjoyed some parts of her job and always did those tasks first. She would put most of her time and energy into the responsibilities that she liked doing. Then she would run out of time to do the other tasks that either she didn’t enjoy or didn’t believe that she knew how to effectively complete.

With this information, Carol and Jane were then able to come up with a plan to address these issues. They decided to provide Jane with more training in the area of her job where she felt she lacked knowledge. Carol proposed to Jane that she would have another employee to do one of the tasks that Jane did not enjoy and that Jane would then arrange her time to spend one hour in the morning doing one of the other tasks that she wasn’t crazy about.

Jane was grateful for this compromise and so far, it is working well. The work is now getting done and Jane and Carol are both happier. They were able to step into each other’s skin and in doing so they could come up with a plan that worked for each of them.

© Sue Schleifer, August 2009

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