by Eddie Pipkin

I was assembling a new bike last week, and even though I am not a handy person, things were going pretty well.  Then I got to the “attach front fender” stage, and my efforts ground to a screeching halt.  I had spent about an hour working through the steps to get to this nearly final stage, and then I spent an additional hour trying to mount the reluctant fender.  It was not a happy hour.  The problem was that I had a tiny screw that had to be passed through the spoke-like piece of metal supporting the weight of the fender and threaded to a hole in the front fork.  No matter how tightly I held it in place – in try after increasingly frustrated try – I could not get that little fastener to grab hold and tighten up.  At least, not until I dramatically shifted my perspective.  This is so often true of problems we face: We’re stuck, and the only thing that can get us moving again is to alter the angle from which we are approaching the problem.

In my case, being both visually challenged and physically klutzy, what it took was moving to the other side of the bike and repositioning myself physically in relation to the screw I was attempting to install.  That adjustment of angles magically did the trick – I say magically; it really was an instant fix, the kind that makes a person do a facepalm for not trying that tactic during the first ten minutes of the struggle.  But that’s how we are, isn’t it?  Obstinate.  Hard-headed.  Obsessed with winning.  With pursuing what feels like it really oughta work.

When we’re attempting to partner with other people, this obstinance (the refusal to pursue other viewpoints) can take many forms:

  • Refusing to ask for help.
  • Refusing to admit we’re in over our heads.
  • Refusing to ask questions.
  • Refusing to retrace our previous steps (thought wise or process wise).
  • Refusing to take a pause until we get more and better information.
  • Refusing to admit we got something wrong.
  • Refusing to admit that, while maybe we’re not wrong, there’s apparently a better way forward.
  • Refusing to acknowledge that our priority is not the best in the moment for the people around us or the organization that we serve.

If we want to shift our perspective, there are some common strategies that can help:

  • Seek input from others. Listen carefully (and with an open and honest heart and mind) to what they have to say.  These others can be people working with us to solve the problem – other stakeholders, leaders, and decision makers.  They can also be (and this can provide a radical perspective shift that we too often fail to embrace) the people we are serving.  There are many times that we are so confident in the awesome solutions we feel capable of providing that we fail to truly understand what it is that people know they really need.
  • Solicit wisdom from beyond our walls. It is a vast world of thinkers and doers out there, and technology has made it easier than ever before to check in and check out what other people are doing.  How have they solved the very problem that we are trying to solve?  No problem would ever get solved around my house it wasn’t for the vast trove of do-it-yourself videos on YouTube, God bless them and their helpful algorithm.  And dig a little deeper than the five most popular answers.  To shake things up, consider some answers / suggestions / strategies that are the direct opposite from your normal way of thinking.  Embrace the counter-position, at least as a thought experiment.  It may help you see something you haven’t considered before.
  • Shift your time perspective. Step back and take a deep breath, formally or informally.  A pause refreshes our mind and unsticks our attitude.  Table a decision when you are able, and see how letting it lie for a few weeks will help provide a fresh frame of mind when you return to it.  In my own case, it has taken me a lot of years to learn that when I become frustrated with using tools, whatever the immediate challenge may be, it’s amazing how walking away and doing something else for a few minutes helps me reset.  Almost always, when I return to a problematic task after having taken a breather, things suddenly fall into place.
  • Shift your physical perspective. It is truly uncanny the way that thinking about a problem from, literally, a different angle can open up possibilities.  Being stuck in the same room with the same people for hours is a recipe for stalling out.  Being trapped behind the same laptop and sitting in the same chair for hour after hour is a recipe for stagnation.  Movement is great: walking meetings have become something of a trend in the past couple of years.  Try it with your team!  Or at least take a stretch and stroll break to shake everybody’s brain cells loose.

Empathy is crucial for shifting one’s perspective.  Without empathy, we can’t embrace a different approach offered by another team member, and we can’t fully understand the impact of our decisions on the people on the other end of our decision-making equation.  There is power in empathy.  And while some of us have a natural tendency to embrace the perspectives and experiences of others, learned empathy is a skill that can be developed and enhanced.  We should resist the old trope that one is either gifted to be an empath or not.  All of us can develop the kind of emotional identification and “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” that can help us lead our teams and organizations with a focus on what produces the best outcomes for all.

Just as I was writing this blog entry, I came across the story of the Sycamore Gap Tree at Hadrian’s wall in northern England.  Hundreds of years old, cherished by many, it grew improbably in a gap in the wall between two hills.  It was beautiful and unexpected when people hiked over the hill to find it, the site of marriage proposals, long nights of thinking and talking, and even memorable movie scenes.  But sometime in the past couple of days, a teenage boy apparently cut it down in a grotesque act of vandalism.  Although somebody who had never been there and never seen this living link to history might shrug their shoulders and say, “It was just a tree.  Plant another,” the local people who loved it and the thousands who travelled to see it over the decades were heartbroken.  It was iconic and special to them, now gone in an act of senseless destruction.

And although I never met this tree (and you probably haven’t either), as my friend, Martin, likes to say, “Every tree is iconic to somebody.”  And when you think of that tree, you think of a tree that was or is special to you.

Most everything our ministry touches is iconic and special to somebody: every program we tweak, cancel, or replace; every room we repurpose; every event we restructure; every staff member or key volunteer we reassign.  Empathy is important – understanding what makes these things special to the people who love them – and having a deeper appreciation for those things, taking that feedback seriously, can help us shift our perspective and make something new even while respecting what has come before.  It’s one more way to get unstuck, especially when the decision making is fraught with history, tradition, and people who are troubled by the prospect of change.

I’ve written other blogs about perspective shifts, each taking a slightly different angle (or you might say, each exploring a slightly different perspective) on the topic.  Here are some links:

  • “Get Out”: A blog which argues the value of intentionally moving out beyond the walls of our campus and into the homes, business, and public spaces of our surrounding neighborhoods to develop an expanded perspective on what is happening and what matters to the people with whom we work and serve.
  • “Put a Rock In It”: A blog that offers some ideas for shaking up our thinking and moving ourselves forward in approaching those seemingly unsolvable problems that nag at us and irritate us to distraction.
  • “Unexpected Insight”: A blog that encourages us to embrace unanticipated sources of fresh insights and to take steps to encourage give such insights fertile fields in which to sprout and grow.
  • “Stuck Stuck Stuck” : A blog about turning frustration and boredom into creative energy, using every trick in the arsenal to get motivated and get moving.

What do you do when you’re stuck and can’t move forward on a project, with a decision, or in a relationship?  Do you have some tried and true strategies for shifting your perspective?  Do you have an effective means for soliciting viewpoints other than your own and embracing empathy?  Share your tips and tricks and insights and observations.  I’d hate to be stuck with only my own perspective!