How to Switch Up Your Perspective to Assess a Difficult Situation


Last week I worked with a coaching client who has a technically skilled but interpersonally challenging team member we’ll call “Ermengarde.” She had a reputation for being particularly annoying to some of her teammates, who did not enjoy collaborating with her. My client and I used a technique that’s sometimes called “zooming in and out” to examine the situation from multiple vantage points and find ways to enhance Ermengarde’s strengths and minimize her weaknesses.

Look at the Big Picture

Zooming out, which is the equivalent of focusing on the forest rather than the trees, helps you weigh the importance and proportionality of the issue or action and shows you that you have options for how you handle the situation. Shifting the time horizon is one of the most obvious ways to zoom out. You start the technique by asking yourself, “Will this matter in five years? One year? Six months? Three months? Two weeks? Tomorrow? Or will it not?”

If the issue — or, in Ermengarde’s case, the behavior — truly will not matter in a month, then you can decide whether it’s prudent just to live with it. It may be temporarily uncomfortable, but if it can be tolerated without harm, then most people will get through it just fine. And if the discomfort will last only a short time, why create more significant disruptions to deal with this small thing? As the expression says, “Don’t use an elephant gun to shoot a flea.” You’ll end up doing more damage than you started with.

Who Needs to Do What?

Another form of zooming out is looking at roles or responsibilities. Does a particular activity need to be done only by Ermengarde, or could it be completed with less stress or resistance or mess by someone else? Rather than creating a binary choice —“Will Ermengarde do this well or mess it up?” — consider who in addition to Ermengarde could handle it, and whether that would be beneficial to the overall needs of the situation and the group.

There are likely to be pros and cons that should be considered. If a particular task is supposed to be Ermengarde’s responsibility and you reassign it, what will be the downsides to Ermengarde, the person who takes over, and the recipient of the action? Zooming out helps you recognize that you’re not completely stuck and that you have options.

Get Granular

Zooming in, on the other hand, lets you focus on specific, potentially useful details that can provide insight into how to create productive change. In Ermengarde’s case, I encouraged my client to zoom in and look for small opportunities to praise or thank her, as a way to soothe her insecurities and simultaneously, to encourage her. He could also zoom in by asking Ermengarde for the specifics of what had gone well in a particular meeting or interaction, first pointing out that something had actually gone well, and then asking how they could create or support more of those good interactions.

Another form of zooming in could help Ermengarde notice any clues that she was about to have a bad time, and allow her to manage herself better in difficult situations. For example, Ermengarde had a habit of overreacting during meetings. If she could recognize that she was tapping her foot or clenching her jaw, she might be able to calm herself down by using a slow breathing technique, sipping some water, or at the very least, thinking twice before she spoke.

Contrasts Are Instructive

Zooming in and out lets you think about a situation as a set of particular details, any of which might need to be managed or could potentially be improved; at the same time, it also lets you weigh the relative importance or value of the situation itself, so you don’t invest too much or too little attention. Most importantly, it helps you keep things in proportion and reveals multiple courses of action for making adjustments. My client is now finding numerous productive opportunities to work better with Ermengarde, to everyone’s relief!

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Author: Liz Kislik

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