Comparing Points of View: A Reading Journey
November 24, 2015 | Capria Jaussen, Cecily Erin Hill
Image: Illustration of Camera Obscura from “Sketchbook on Military Art,” 17th Century, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Reflecting on her experience with Books@Work, a participant recently told us that “Listening to others express their thoughts and ideas has enabled me to have a better understanding as to why people may see things differently than [I do].” We hear this idea repeatedly in our interviews. Participants come to our book discussions expecting to talk about literature – and they do. But to their surprise and delight, discussing a book also becomes an opportunity to listen and learn from each other. They come to understand their coworkers’ perspectives, and they appreciate the diversity and difference within each other and within their workplace.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on point of view.” In our own lives, too, we have found that being able to see a situation or way of thinking from another person’s point of view provides a transformative experience. Our minds are enlarged, our thinking enlivened. We know we will always be changed for the better – and this holds true even if we end up fundamentally disagreeing with the other’s perspective.
Reading books is one of the best ways to practice this skill. Time and again great books have taught us to see the world differently, to refine our own perspectives on anything from falling in love to exploring what makes work meaningful. After all, books offer readers the chance to imagine others’ lives, to travel across our world and to other worlds. This is what Joyce Carol Oates indicates when she writes that “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” When we are caught up in a good book we are held, spellbound, by another’s perspective.
Of course, discussion amplifies the range of perspectives and ideas books open to us. Talking about books is an opportunity to see even more perspectives and to gain a nuanced approach to our own. If we live in the echo chamber of our own heads and never listen to alternate voices, we risk missing the ways our thinking has become cramped or trapped. As another participant said, “If you have that break time for an hour, and you’re discussing the same book and your interpretations, you do see a little bit more of a different side of a co-worker than you might have seen before. That, I think, helps because we we’re all diverse and have different backgrounds. We all bring something different to the table regardless if we’re the same age and the same race, anything. There’s something different all of us can bring, and I think that helps a lot.”In addition to helping us refine our ideas and celebrate those of others, opening ourselves to new perspectives helps us learn to disagree without shutting people out and the conversation down. As a third participant recalled, “There were also viewpoints that I completely disagreed with that were brought up. I thought, ‘no’ because I didn’t see it that way, but that didn’t mean it was invalid. I like that we’re able to talk about it from all these different perspectives. I don’t have to accept somebody’s viewpoint in order to actually digest it and see where they’re coming from. I think that’s a very important exercise.”
Appreciating and differentiating from other points of view is good for the workplace, too. Reflecting that “practice makes perfect,” a participant acknowledged, “It’s hard to speak up in a meeting talking about business if you have a different idea or you disagree with an idea that’s put forward. It’s hard to stand up and say something different than the group might think. . . I think with Books@Work you can just naturally do that. You’re talking about something that is specifically meant for you as an individual to digest and to give to other people and to accept from other people. Maybe the next time you’re at a meeting and a different idea is presented that you have or that you disagree with you can say something because you’re not unfamiliar with doing that.”
Paying attention to and learning from other perspectives enriches our sense of the world and our place in it. It can help us feel less isolated, less cut off from people who disagree with us. It can help us find kindred spirits in even the most unlikely places. And, instead of “complaining because the rose bushes have thorns,” we are reminded to “rejoice because the thorn bushes have roses.” Difference of opinion and diversity of perspective is a gift.
As we approach the holiday season, we at Books@Work are thinking about the work that we have done this year and that we continue to do. In a world that sometimes seems so fractured and divisive, we are especially grateful that a huge piece of our work is the opportunity to bring together divergent voices – to listen and keep learning and to help others do the same.