I recently had a chance to sit down with Kimberly White, author of the new book The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything, a fascinating look at how we “see” other people—and how this influences our happiness. We spoke about the surprising origins of her book, what it means “to shift,” and how a simple change in perspective can transform lives, troubled relationships, and feelings of fulfillment at work. Here is some of our conversation:
You’ve said this book came as a complete surprise to you. What’s different than you imagined?
Well, when I started researching for this book, I had intended to write a typical business case study. I knew the company I was profiling owned nursing homes, but I didn’t think that would play into the book much; I just figured I’d look at their management practices.
But when I actually visited the nursing homes, it was completely different than I imagined. I saw nurses and care staff who genuinely loved their patients, and patients who were generally happy and interesting people. And the biggest surprise of all was that spending time with these people — the workers, nurses, management, and patients—showed me a way of relating to others that I had never dreamed of before. It ultimately transformed my personal relationships.
What happens when you experience “the shift”?
It’s amazing, really. You see, we often go about our lives seeing other people as though they are no more than objects—as though they exist only for us. We only care about what they can do for us, and we get frustrated and angry when they don’t help us further our goals. And this is ridiculous because, guess what? People aren’t objects. When we see people this way, we can’t help but be wrong about them, sometimes in huge ways. It’s like being blind.
But when we shift our perspective, we stop seeing others as objects and begin to see them as people. Real people have their own goals and their own legitimate perspectives. We begin to see people as they truly are, and we see that they have their own lives independent of our needs. This allows us to stop feeling frustrated because we no longer see other people as “owing” us anything. And we stop feeling angry because we can understand the reasons people behave as they do.
It’s like suddenly having our eyes opened. We can clearly see our own role in creating conflict, which gives us the opportunity to change our behavior. And, very often, when our behavior changes and we truly value another person, they respond in kind.
Does this have limitations? Or maybe the better question is: “What doesn’t ‘the shift’ do?”
The shift doesn’t change other people. That’s key—sometimes we read self-help books to try to get the people in our lives to change, to make them better. That’s not what the shift is about. The shift only changes you. The people around you will still have the same faults and limitations. And although most people will respond with gratitude when you start treating them like people, and entire relationships will improve, some people won’t respond at all.
Some relationships do not heal. But even in those cases, at least you’ll be able to see the other person clearly and compassionately. Even if you have to end the relationship, at least you’re doing it with open eyes, not blindly thinking only about yourself.
How can seeing people as people help in the workplace, and at home?
We so often get drawn into power struggles at work. In my book, I talk about a common situation where management tries to cut corners by reducing supplies, and the staff responds by hiding their supplies to make sure they don’t run out, and then management can’t understand why they’re going through supplies so quickly! Little feuds like this happen all the time, and they eat up so much energy and productivity.
But when people see each other as people, they don’t engage in these battles because they don’t see each other as enemies. The staff can say, “Hey, I’m worried about running out of supplies and not being able to do my job.” And management will think, “Oh no, I don’t want my staff to be stressed about supplies!” and they’ll work out a solution together.
At home, it’s so easy to see our spouses and partners only in terms of what we want from them, like they’re objects for our use, and not ever think about what they need from us. But when we see our partners as people, with their own needs, we’re less concerned about what they are doing (or not doing) for us, and we become motivated to understand their struggles—and to help them. This creates a spiral of goodwill and helpfulness that can make home life a delight.
To learn more about Kimberly White and her new book, visit her website.