Limits to seeing: capacity and attachment

Helping a colleague process tough feedback this week, I’ve been reaching for a framing to describe something subtle around the nature of the limits to seeing another’s perspective. This story tries to get at this subtlety.

When we find ourselves in a situation where a colleague or a friend says something that doesn’t make sense, we might be encountering one of the two obstacles in our way: the limit of capacity and the limit of attachment.

The limit of capacity to fully grok another perspective is fairly straightforward. Trying to explain derivatives to a three-year old is an example of such a limit: the child is not yet capable of holding mental models of this complexity. Similarly, I could also be overloaded with other things. My favorite example here is an anecdote from a colleague of mine, who was masterfully conducting a status update meeting to senior leads. At the end of the update, one of the leads said: “This is all very cool, nice work! If you don’t mind… Can you tell us why you are doing this?” Leaders have full plates, and this project simply fell off, going beyond their collective holding capacity.

The second kind of obstacle is much trickier. With the limit of attachment, taking a perspective feels unsafe for some reason. I am attached to my view and intuitively want to defend it against anything that might change it. Either there’s a painful admission of some truth that’s hard to come to terms with, or an entire construction of the world might come undone if this perspective is taken. This limit has a very prominent marker: a sense of unease, a spike of emotional temperature in the conversation. “Whoa, this meeting just got weird.”

The distinction between these obstacles feels significant to me because the approaches to overcoming them are drastically different. For the limit of capacity, I typically look for ways to decrease the notional capacity of the perspective I want to convey. Can I create a simple, more accessible narrative? Perhaps connect it to something that’s already well-understood and habitual? Framing, describing, articulating, narrative-making are all fine tools for this job.

These tools are also futile and possibly harmful for the limit of attachment. When I am firmly attached to my perspective, these attempts to “better explain” will feel like attacks, like blades that are shredding the essence of my being. Until I myself bring my attachment to the foreground and reflect on it, I will remain stuck. The “myself” in the last sentence is key. In my experience, the limit of attachment can only be overcome from the inside. So if you’re having a “just got weird” meeting or email exchange with a colleague, it might be worth gently pinging them to see if they recognize bumping against their limit of attachment, giving them a moment to reflect and regroup. And be prepared to walk away if the ping goes unheard.

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