Meeting People Where They Are: What Is On the Other Side?

“What you do as an actor is you’re inhabiting souls. And you’re asking those souls to come into your space. And you could only do that in a non-judgmental way,”

British actress Naomie Harris spoke in a CBS interview of her process to become a crack addict, single mom in the movie Moonlight. Researching and becoming her character was not an easy process. Harris said, “I couldn’t understand this concept. … We know how destructive drugs are. So how does somebody get attracted to that, you know? And she has a son. And so I had so much judgment, actually, and I really had to work very hard to overcome that judgment.”

I am not an actor, but I can relate to the process of character study. My work in management involves understanding who the other person is – what they need, how they think, what motivates them. Whether it is my team members, my bosses, my colleagues or my customers, I need to get into their heads, understand them, and meet them where they are before I can work with them to achieve our shared goals. After many years of believing and practicing “meeting people where they are”, I think I am getting good at it. But I sometimes still get it wrong despite my best intention and effort. I was once helping a nonprofit executive to develop a business plan with a shared goal to deliver services while keeping the program financially sustainable. She brought programmatic experience to the collaboration while I contributed my business experience. After months of meetings, she said to me, “I don’t get these business things, and I don’t think you understand our mission.” Ouch! I thought we had been on the same side. Where did we go wrong?

Harris’ comment offered new insight for me to look at my own process. When Harris said that we know how destructive drugs are, there was an implicit assumption that everyone should know that drugs are bad and that everyone should avoid them. That assumption seemed to be a roadblock for Harris to understand the woman whom she was trying to portray, and only when she let go of the assumption and the judgment that came with it, she was able to embrace and play the character. I wonder if I make assumptions in my own process. When I say I meet people where they are, do I really meet them where they are? Do they see the shared goals the way I do? What is really in the mind of those on the other side?

A book appropriately titled The Other Side by Istvan Banyai became my tool to reflect on these questions. The book has no narratives or dialogues and contains a series of scenes in black, white and gray, with occasional accents of yellow and coral. Almost half of the cover is taken up by what appears to be a solid black wall, and yet the boy on the cover is able to lift a small part of the bottom and peek to the other side as if the wall were only a curtain. The title “the other side” floats on the left side of the black wall with its mirror image in dark gray on the wall itself. The text is barely recognizable against the dark backdrop, but enough to pique curiosity and invite the question: what is on the other side?

Each page of the book has a scene that contains a lot of detail, but there is always an element that links a particular scene to the next scene. For example, on one page, a girl is practicing the cello in her apartment, and there is a paper airplane flying outside her window. On the next page, the paper airplane turns out to be one of the many that a boy next door is launching from his window into the city, which becomes the city that another boy on a real airplane sees from his window, on yet another page.

I was intrigued by the concept of a wordless book, the beautiful illustrations, and the underlying question: what is on the other side? As I journeyed through the book, I started to observe a few things about myself.

First, I started with curiosity. I had an open mind and had no expectations of what the book was about. I was looking, noticing, and enjoying the drawings and whatever thoughts they transpired.

Then, I noticed the connecting point – the paper airplane that connected the girl with the cello with the boy with the paper airplanes, or the city that connected the boy with the paper airplanes with the boy inside the real airplane.

After noticing a few of these connecting points, I recognized the pattern that there was always something to connect one scene to the next. Pattern recognition led to expectations. I now expected to see these connecting points and actively looked for them. As someone who liked to connect the dots at work, I enjoyed finding these connections. The process was natural for me and resonated with my own value.

Then, I started to predict what might come next. Which drawing on a particular page would be the connecting point to the next page and what scene would be on the other side. Initially, the connection was easy to spot and predict, like a drawing of a woman on a beach on the cover of a magazine on one page and a real woman on a real beach on the next. However, as the story unfolded, the connection became less literal, less obvious, and more unexpected. What was on the other side was harder to predict.

On one page, there was a scene with a poster of a man with a bowler hat, a scar on his forehead and an eyepatch on his left eye and with a caption “REWARD FOR MISSING MONSTER”. On the next page, the man appeared on the street in person. Following that page was a scene of a street corner in a city, with people spooked by the sound of gunshots coming from around the corner. My mind immediately expected to see the man with the scarred forehead firing his gun on the next page. There might even be an injured victim. I was wrong. The next page was just a scene of a movie set with two cowboys in a mock gunfight. The only victim was a teddy bear on the set. The “missing monster” did not actualize in the book, and only did in my mind.

That was when I realized that I was making assumptions and letting my judgment and prejudice come out. How did I go from reading a book with curiosity, to searching for connection with good intention, to making an assumption that a character was a bad guy? Even in a few moments of flipping pages of the book, I let the visual cues – the poster, the scarred face, the gunshots – lead me to believe that the man in the poster had hurt or would hurt someone. Imagine what those unaware moments could do in the real world? How many assumptions and how much judgment and prejudice do we let out despite our best intention?

As humans, we make assumptions. Our values are influenced by our own preferences and life experiences as well as by the values that our respective families, communities and societies teach us and expect of us. So, we are bound to disagree, but that is part of life, and we can try to work through our differences. In my mind, the real danger lies in the times that we think we see the other side, but we don’t. Sometimes what we believe to be a universal truth or good intention ends up being a roadblock for us to reach the other side. For an actor, she has a script to remind her that she has to let go of her values and assumptions to be another person. For us, we don’t have such a script, so we have to put extra efforts in our character study. By checking in with our values and assumptions periodically, we can chip away the roadblock and meet people closer to where they are, if not exactly where they are.