Do you tend to see people by their differences or their similarities? I get this is a loaded question, but pause for a moment and think about it. Imagine you’re walking down the sidewalk and a person is approaching? What do you see? What do you notice? How do you react? This concept hit me in the face a few days back, when my daughter and I went to see a tattoo shop owner.
My 14-year-old daughter wanted a nose ring. I don’t know what to think about stuff like this at times. She’s a fantastic girl and owns her style. Although she hates getting the “Most Likely to be a Leader” award at the end of every school year, she’s a leader. I love that she gets that award!
She’s been hoping for this nose piercing for six months or so. We’ve made her wait to evaluate this decision more fully. We agreed to her new piercing last week and began investigating how to make this happen. I naively assumed we’d go back to Claire’s – the retail home of inexpensive jewelry and ear piercings. I have some experience with this place.
Turns out Claire’s does not pierce noses, or anything other than ears for that matter. Tattoo shops are the place for nose holes. Who knew? I researched, found a place close to our home, and made the appointment. When we showed up, I basically knew what to expect. My daughter, not so much. Of course, the shop owner had no skin without a tattoo. His female counterpart was him in girl form, just with an additional dozen or so piercings.
Physically, the tattoo shop owner (or his staff) didn’t look like me. They didn’t look like my daughter. I’m considering getting a tattoo, but I doubt I’ll have a sleeve soon. Or neck tattoos. Or forehead. Yet, I saw myself as I began talking with this fully tattooed and pierced tattoo shop owner.
And I don’t mean “spiritual as a brother in humanity” or something weird. This guy had skateboards and skate stickers from the 80s and 90s plastered all over the shop. I have that in my office. He had Halloween gear on display. I don’t display what I’ve got, but trust me, my attic has a few bins of Hollywood-quality masks and accessories. On his table sat an entire pack of Prismacolor pencils. I’m a non-practicing artist, but these same pencils were my weapon of choice in my art days. And he owns the shop. He’s an entrepreneur. Like me.
I am this tattoo shop owner. And he is me. I’m guessing we grew up in different circumstances. Had different opportunities and met other people. Our school choices might have been different. But at our core, deep down, we seemingly have everything in common.
If I saw this tattoo shop owner on any sidewalk, I’d walk by, assuming he and I were nothing alike. I probably couldn’t imagine having so much as one conversation. (Oh, I forgot: He likes coffee and has been to my coffee shop several dozen times.) And I’ve never noticed him. I’ve never seen him. And I’ve never connected with him.
Leading Beyond the Surface
As a leader, you want to connect. You want to lead well, which requires the ability to lead people not like you. You want to build a team with diverse personalities, interests, and skills. Unity of culture is a must, but diversity everywhere else is vital.
My tattoo shop experience left me wondering how often we don’t notice the exact people who could be perfect for our team, church, or organization simply because they don’t look the part or dress the part. We too often make snap, external decisions without taking a moment to consider what may lay beyond the surface.
The Tattoo Shop Owner Taught me to Stop Making Surface Judgements
If we don’t intentionally develop the skill of looking beyond what appear as differences, we will miss much of what life has to offer. Here are some tips to be intentional with those people you meet every day:
1. Acknowledge you live with stereotypes.
Anyone who says they don’t see what’s on the surface is either lying or ignorant. We all have learned to first look on the outside and, if we feel comfortable with what we see, take it deeper. This default approach leaves us relationally anemic. We become isolated, existing in a self-created echo chamber.
We all have stereotypical perceptions. We need to make an intentional commitment to acknowledge they exist.
Question: What stereotypes do you have? How were they formed?
2. Notice how you feel when people enter your world.
Say you’re sitting at Copper Coin, the best coffee shop in Woodstock, Georgia (shameless plug). You are at a table drinking a latte made from single-origin specialty coffee and snacking on a world-famous cinnamon roll. (Again…). People begin walking in the shop and passing by. How do you perceive them? The only answer is by their appearance.
This is my point. My tattoo shop owner friend has probably been in my coffee shop many times while I’m there. And I probably assessed him, thinking, “I bet we have nothing in common.”
Question: When a person who doesn’t look like you is near you, what is your typical reaction?
3. Take time to know, not assume.
This isn’t possible at all times, but when it is, take the time to interact with people. Develop some go-to questions that help you see below the surface. Ask them what they love to do when they aren’t working. Ask them what they dreamed of doing when they were a child? Ask them where they desire to vacation one day.
You may find that we are all more similar than we are different. We share so many common dreams and hopes. We might perceive the path to our vision differently, but our landing point is likely similar.
Question: How are you intentionally learning about others?
4. Reverse your assumptions.
It’s helpful to reverse our assumptions. We default to seeing what’s different. What would happen if we decided to first look for what is the same. I don’t have any skateboard tattoos on my neck, but I drew my new friend’s neck tattoo about 1,000 times during math class as a middle school student. This also explains how well I did in math class.
My friend Andy Stanley calls this “choosing to believe the best, not assume the worst.” I love this. When there is a superficial difference, assume there is internal unity.
These considerations go well beyond tattoos and skin color, although neither are bad examples. This approach will help us in every version of “different than me” interactions.
Question: How would your interactions change if you reversed your assumptions?
This article about the tattoo shop owner and removing stereotypes originally appeared here, and is used by permission.