When Others Don’t See Their Own Potential



  • What are we really seeing when we see someone’s potential? (00:25)

  • Being the expert on someone else’s life – at home (2:25)

  • Being the expert on someone else’s life – at work (5:15)

  • Your turn… (7:00)


A good friend and I were talking about the hiring process and what a drag it can be. She hires a good many people in her role, and she said that she had to learn early on that, as much as she wants to see the potential in people, her job in hiring staff is to hire them for exactly who they are right now.


That hit me right between the eyes because I get very attracted to what I decide is the potential in people, and I want to be part of helping them uncover what I see so clearly in them.

But the key phrase here is: “what I see so clearly in them.”

Oh, man. This was such a tough thing for me to hear, because I know from Navigating Challenging Dialogue®, that I can only see the world through my own lens. And so, when I believe I see someone else’s potential, I am seeing it only through my If It Were Me lens, and not through the What Do They See lens.

In fact, it matters not what I see. The only person I can manage is myself, and sometimes I tend to see only what it is I want for the other person – which is simply a reflection of what I want for myself. It is another version of: “If I had this opportunity, I would … and therefore, you should.”

Darn it. There’s that “should” again.


In her late teens and early 20s, my oldest daughter struggled to see the unrealized potential for her life. I was so frustrated; I just could not understand why she couldn’t own what I could so clearly see for her.

Nine years ago, she suffered a horrible, traumatic fall as a result of her partying lifestyle. She calls it “the fall that saved my life.” I call it: the fall that would have been unnecessary if she just could have believed me about what I saw as her full potential!

I remember so well when I graduated from college – at the age of 32 while working full-time, raising two kids, and maintaining Dean’s List status the entire time. My dear mother said to me, “I always wondered when you’d see what I’ve always seen in you.”

I was proud, but I also wanted to yell at her, “Why the heck didn’t you let me in on the secret?! I could have saved a lot of time spent being mediocre.” But now I know that she probably tried. In fact, every time she said, “Beth, you should…” – and I, either through behavior, my attitude, or my actions said, “No way!” – she was trying to show me what she saw as my potential.

My dear friend said to me, “Beth, we can send out all the signals we want about potentiality, but if the candidate (or the child) doesn’t have a receiver on, the signals just don’t land.”

When we put our idea of potential and our shoulds onto others, it creates an unnecessary tension. It adds to our burden, because when we become the expert on someone else, we limit what’s possible for them, and we set ourselves up for disappointment when they choose their own path. We also continually message dissatisfaction and, frankly, we offend the other person’s sense of self.


I saw this play out plainly in an organization I was consulting with, where a vice president wanted so badly for her staff person to do as she had done – work her way up the ladder by applying for positions with more responsibility.

I was brought in to do coaching with the staff person, to help her “reach her potential.” In our first (and last) session, the staff person said to me, “Look, I’m a grandmother. I have a big family. I know this job really well, and I like it. I can do it, get paid, and then go home and spend time with my family. I have no desire to go any higher in this organization because doing so would impact that which I value. I am really content.”

When I facilitated a dialogue between the staff person and the VP, it suddenly became clear to the VP that, while well-intentioned, she was pushing her perspective – her way to do it, her “should,” her “if it were me” – onto her staff person. The VP’s eyes were opened, and she backed off on being the expert in someone else’s life.

And the tension between them? Well, it dissolved!


Relieve yourself of the burden of knowing everyone else’s potential. That is truly their business.

Of course, you can provide feedback or acknowledgment and, if asked, advice and even mentoring. But otherwise, engage as a curious learner, and don’t be disappointed if they make a different choice about their potentiality.

Trust me. It is way more fun, it builds better connections, and it makes space for people to have the fall that saves their life.

- Beth