What does it really mean to see people as people? In this post, we explore that question.
At Arbinger, we often speak of “seeing people as people”—an idea so straightforward it sometimes seems unnecessary to even point out…until, that is, we realize how often we see people as objects—as irrelevancies, vehicles, or obstacles to the objectives of our daily lives. Yet even the more elaborate idea of “seeing people as people, not as objects” doesn’t fully clarify what it means to truly see people as people.
The difficulty of defining such an apparently simple idea may be because seeing people as people asks us not only to plunge into the depths of what makes us human, but also to make such depths visible. It requires us to inquire into others’ inner worlds. How do we go about doing this when people’s inner worlds remain tucked beneath the surface?
As I’ve dwelled on this question for the past several months, I’ve found myself turning to another question in order to answer the first. That question is: What does it feel like to be seen?
For myself, being seen feels like a homecoming in which the other person has explored the varying paths of my life narrative and has returned from the journey, only to warmly welcome me home.
As I’ve contemplated what it is to be seen, I’ve realized that one aspect of seeing others as people is using both imagination and curiosity to wander through their stories. And in my own quest to better navigate others’ inner worlds, I’ve found some of the best guides to be those who are blind. Without sight, it seems as though they can more readily access the inner worlds of others.
Tommy Edison, an American YouTuber who is also blind, says,
I don’t think of people being tall or short. I think of them as humans. I think about what they have to say. I think about what they think…Martin Luther King always talked about, “Don’t judge a man by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” And I got to be honest with you. I think people like myself and other blind people are the best at that because we don’t see the color of their skin. Right? It’s all about content of character…People judge others by a lot of different things. I mean, not only race but people judge others by the clothes that they wear, by the shoes they wear, by the type of car that they drive…I always wanted to have a party, right, where no one could see…None of the guests could see each other and they could just talk to each other…At the end of the night you take off the blindfolds or whatever and let people see who you’ve been talking to for a few hours. It would be awesome because if you close your eyes, it’s amazing the things you could hear…Inside we’re all the same colors, aren’t we? It’s just this stupid skin that gets in the way. And quite frankly it’s vision that can get in the way as well. If we all got rid of the skin, we’d all look the same again…It’s all about what’s in your heart and in your head. Those are the only two things that matter to me about a human.
If you closed your eyes, it’s amazing the things you could hear.
Another way we might think of it is: if we closed our eyes, it’s amazing what aspects of a person we might actually see.
If we closed our eyes, we might see more than a heavy metal t-shirt or red lipstick.
If we closed our eyes, we might see more than socio-economic status, be it rich or poor.
If we closed our eyes, we might see more than a face.
If we closed our eyes, we might see more of their stories—we might see more of them.
Seeing people is, of course, seeing them not as objects but as people. But it’s also taking the time to look beneath the surface. It’s taking the time to listen. It’s having the courage to explore the terrain of their inner world. In a sense, it’s seeing them through closed eyes.
As it says in one of my favorite books, The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
In fact, we might think of it this way: seeing people is seeing the invisible.