Seeing People in High- and Low Resolution




An outward mindset has two variations. What are they, and when should we use which one?


By Jack Colwell, Director, Arbinger Public Safety Practice | November 03, 2017

An Experiment

This holiday season, try a little experiment: When you’re having an in-depth conversation with a loved one, notice whether you are focused on the tiny details about that person. Do you see a flash of pain on their face as they discuss a problem? Do you notice their voice brighten as they mention a new achievement or excitement?

Think of these kinds of focused, detailed observations as being in “high resolution.”

During the same conversation, try to discern others in the area. Observe that while you are focused on your high-resolution exchange, others become vague images moving in your peripheral vision. Their conversations likely sound like non-descript murmuring.

Think of these peripheral, unfocused observations as “low-resolution.” The people on your periphery are still people, but unless they suddenly speak loudly or move suddenly, they will remain low resolution.

The simple reason for this is that people cannot see more than one person at a time in high resolution. It’s the same reason we cannot really multitask.

Seeing People as People in High Resolution

Like the above experiment, an outward mindset has high- and low-resolution variations. With an outward mindset, we see people as people.

In a high-resolution outward mindset, we focus on a person or small group of people as people. We are curious about what’s going on for them. Through this curiosity, we gain current knowledge of their objectives, hopes, dreams, fears, and so on.

Most of the time, when Arbinger describes an outward mindset, we are referring to this high-resolution version. We encourage people to see others as people; to take into account their needs, concerns, and goals; and to adjust their own efforts to be more helpful to others.

From this, one might conclude that this detailed taking-into-account is the only way to have an outward mindset. That if we do not have current knowledge of someone’s objectives, hopes, dreams, and fears, then we are not seeing them as a person. Instead, we are seeing them as an object.

Taking this train of logic one step further, one might even conclude that it is impossible to have an outward mindset toward strangers—toward anyone we do not know closely enough to have that current knowledge of what’s going on for them.

These would be false conclusions—understandable ones, but false nonetheless.

Seeing People as People in Low Resolution

Like in the holiday experiment above, it is not possible to focus on all people, in detail, all the time. We cannot have current knowledge of everyone’s objectives, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.

But just because we cannot see all people in "high-resolution humanity" does not mean we cannot see them as people. We might simply see their humanity in low resolution. We might have a general sense of the outlines of someone’s life, but not the details. We might wonder what’s going on for strangers—or that guy who passed us on the highway in such a rush—with a genuine sense of curiosity but no focused attention.

And this is okay. Indeed, it’s the way we would encourage you to see most of the rest of humanity—because, again, it’s not possible to keep everyone in high resolution.

However: We must not use the impossibility of seeing more than one person (or, context specific, one group) in high resolution at a time as an excuse to stay low resolution all the time. We cannot assume that having a general outline of others’ lives will suffice to maintain our personal and professional relationships. It is still our responsibility to make the effort to check in with others—to bring them into high resolution on occasion—to ensure we are in tune with them.

Shifting from Low Resolution to High Resolution

Bringing someone into high resolution becomes even more necessary if we sense even a subtle indication that something is up with them. If we sense they are struggling, or simply have a need, then we are invited to bring them into high resolution to see how we might help.

And critically, because we see others as people we have the capacity and desire to shift to high-resolution attention if circumstances arise. This is the difference between a low-resolution outward mindset and an inward mindset, in which we are self-focused and see others as objects rather than people.

So here is the outward mindset’s call to action: If a low-resolution relationship is humming along smoothly in the busyness of life, great. But on occasion, especially if we sense a problem brewing, we can get curious. We can ask genuine questions that bring that person and this relationship into high resolution. Then we can adjust our own efforts to be helpful to that person.

Want to receive Arbinger’s best blogs by email? Sign up for our newsletter.