Terms of Endearment is still a terrific film. It won 5 Academy Awards and even though it was made almost 30 years ago and it still stands up. John Lithgow plays the part of Sam Burns a very shy Iowa bank official. He falls in love with the married Debra Winger and has a brief affair. Parts of the film were shot in the Midwest and the director used local extras. Lithgow says that before he was ready to shot his first scene he walked around town studying how locals behaved. He observed closely how they talked, walked and what they were wearing. By chance he met a local bank official. Lithgow began speaking with the banker when he noticed the shoes the man was wearing. They were two tone brown and cream wing tips. Lithgow new instinctively that they were the shoes he needed to wear. He told the astonished official that he needed the shoes immediately and paid a handsome price to the delighted man.
Lithgow said that literally walking in this man’s shoes helped him let go of the “sophisticated actor” playing a role. Lithgow wanted to become that banker from the inside out. He wanted to see and experience what his character was thinking and feeling. In order to accomplish that level of empathy Lithgow had to let go of his own ways of behaving and walk a mile in another mans shoes. This letting go of one perspective and adopting another point of view gave Lithgow the freedom and power to express himself with authenticity.
One need not be an actor to take advantage of this strategy. Changing perspectives helps people gain knowledge. The ability to see the world through an others eyes is a uniquely human skill and like any skill it needs to be practiced as much as possible. So the next time you are in a quandary about someone else, take a John Lithgow moment. Observe the person closely while suspending your own judgment. Be daring enough to walk in the other guys shoes.
"It is my simple mission: to help everyone in our company understand the power of a relationship. In almost every account we have ever lost, if we look back it is due to somewhere along the way we lost touch with the relationship."
These words were written by a coaching client of mine, Barbara, She has recently been promoted to regional VP at a fortune 100 company and her words resonate with the truth of experience. Barbara is a warrior who loves to move into the trenches with her people and get up close and personal when helping them solve problems. Barbara builds relationships not because she is nice, kind, and compassionate. She actually is all of those things. She builds and nurtures relationships because she uses her brain. Barbara is a pragmatic warrior who has been through countless battles with competitors, clients and upper management. Her philosophy of relationship building is based on what works. Her strategy will beat out more aggressive, brutish approaches over the long haul every time. But why does her strategy work?
Resent brain research suggests that the human brain is not so much a “thinking brain” but a relationship making brain. Dr. Gerald Huther, who leads the Dept. of Neurobiology at the Psychiatric Clinic of Gottingen, Germany, says “Until quite recently, it was held to be self-evident that human beings have a big brain to make it possible for them to think. However, the research results of the last years have made it clear that the structure and function of the human brain is especially optimized for building relationships. Our brain is thus much more a social organ than it is a thinking organ.”
Our brain has evolved over millions of years and our closest ancestors, the great apes, have much to teach us. Apes will fight and even kill members of other tribes who try to invade their territory. However, when scientists observe these animals in the wild they report that for the majority of time these animals spend much more time cooperating then fighting. Great apes have learned that building relationships increases the chance of success for all members of the community. By cooperating and specializing on essential tasks like food gathering, rearing the young and watching for dangerous invaders, they all benefit.
Barbara is using her brain when she pays attention to building these interpersonal networks and she reminds her team that relationships take constant attention. She knows that especially in times of stress, building and strengthening relationships will win out over blame and got’cha behavior every time.