The reality is that we don’t see the world as ‘it is’ but rather as ‘we are’. How we see the world is filtered through our multiple lenses that shape and impact how we interpret the world around us. Embedded in our lenses are multiple biases, both known and unknown, biases that shape our understanding of the information that surrounds us.

The work of ‘self-awareness’ is the deliberate effort to understand, and in some cases ‘free’’ ourselves, from these biases. Understanding the lenses through which we see the world around us is fundamental to this essential work. There can be no emotional intelligence without investing in the task of becoming more ‘self-aware’.

There are multiple lenses, some ‘fixed’ and others that are more transient in nature. Some of these lenses are things like gender, age, ethnicity, class, education, physicality, personality, culture, language and religion. Inherent in many of these lenses is a sense of ‘right and wrong’ or a prevailing sense of ‘normal’ and thus, when we encounter behaviours or attitudes that that don’t subscribe to our sensibilities is where the challenge and / or opportunity is to be found.

This topic (our lenses and our inherent biases) is a complex subject. It is something that has been researched and written about a great deal in disciplines from psychology to cultural anthropology. However complex the subject there are some relatively easy ‘first steps’ than can be taken along this lifelong journey.

 Step One:

Think about your most dominant lenses through which you see and interpret the world.

So here would be a simple exercise to start: From the list below try to determined which might be the three lenses that most shape ‘how you see the world’:

  • Language
  • Culture
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Personality
  • Sexuality
  • Race & Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Class / Socio-economic
  • Physical / Disability

Step Two:

Think of a situation you have encountered where some intense emotions were experienced: Consider the part these three lenses played in how you experienced this situation. In other words, re-examine this situation through looking at it a little more objectively and considering how these lenses may have shaped how you saw and responded to the situation you have identified.

 Step Three:

Consider how different things might have been (in the situation identified) were you to have experienced it through three completely different lenses e.g. changing your age, gender and religion.

Of course this is hard to think about but it starts to build an alternative perspective for your consideration. It helps to create a different way to process the particular situation you have in mind.

It is seeing something through the eyes of ‘the other’ person.

It might help to have someone else to discuss this with; someone who perhaps represents some of the alternative lenses you have chosen to ‘see through’. Use the conversation to ask questions (as to how they might have seen things) and to listen. This isn’t an opportunity to justify or rationalise your own default setting in the situation.

 Step Four:

Keep a daily journal for one week in which you reflect on judgements you make (or even think) and explore how your lenses are shaping these judgements. This is an exercise in raising the levels of your awareness of the role that your lenses are playing all the time everyday.

 A final thought:

Try to catch yourself in moments when you feel strongly about something and ask yourself ‘why do I feel this strongly?’

This isn’t grounds to justify to yourself why you reacted the way you did but rather creating opportunity to explore if there were things at play that led to your reaction in the first place; things that you might consider changing in the future.

Learning to create such a ‘pause’ in these moments is an important way to begin to learn from them rather than become trapped by your responses and reactions. It is never easy extracting our emotions from such situations and so use your emotions to better understand the why that invited them into the situation in the first place!

 Empathy dictates that we see and feel things from alternative perspectives. Building our capacity to do so is essential if we are to develop emotional intelligence. Our unwillingness or inability to explore our own lenses and inherent biases will ensure that we remained trapped and unable to grow beyond our limiting orthodoxies and inhibiting perspectives.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

 This is why travel – being exposed to the norms and conventions of those unlike us, is so valuable in this quest to grow beyond ourselves. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) recognised this when he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Understanding how we see is the first step in understanding (and changing) our judgements. It becomes the gateway in identifying our own blind spots and generates the capacity for growth, empathy and openness.


Keith Coats

The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Leadership Thinker (and author of today’s Tuesday Tip), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’d like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.

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