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The Value in Perspective Taking

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Perspective taking is the ability to see things from another person’s view and to better understand what he or she is thinking and feeling. It also comprises of the ability to experience and convey empathy for the other person. It is a life skill that is essential in our social interactions. Perspective taking is related to the concept of Theory of Mind which is the awareness that others have different thoughts, emotions, reactions, intentions, perspectives and beliefs than we do.

The ability to listen and acknowledge another’s perspective will often support enriched relationships, successful careers, a calmer mood and a deeper tolerance of differences in others.  In our current times of social media, political agendas and advocating for oneself, we can easily get caught in the frenzy to express ourselves and overlook the ability to listen and consider another’s perspective. Politics and social culture aside, we can easily forget to stop and consider the perspective of those who are important to us.

When you are able to see things from another’s point of view you are better able to understand and interact with others. Considering another person’s perspective does not mean you need to agree with what they have done or said but you can understand where he or she is coming from. This will enable you to ease your natural defenses and cultivate understanding of alternate ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. A person who is able to step into another’s shoes is less likely to argue with others because the person is now able to make better sense of other people’s behavior. They are also able to broaden their thinking and consider other points of view.

The most beneficial outcome from perspective taking is improvement in our relationships with the people in our daily lives.

Spouses & Significant Others

As a couple develops a relationship they get to know one another very well. Each partner observes patterns of behavior, experience routines and comes to expect what their partner may say or do at any given time. This often leads to a habit of assuming what the other person is thinking or feeling and a decrease in perspective taking. Spouses who regularly consider the other person’s perspective often engage in fewer arguments, feel a greater respect for one another and remain inquisitive about each another, refraining from assumptions.

Children

Perspective taking can allow a parent to understand a child’s behavior and improve communication. Children can often feel misunderstood or as if their opinion does not matter. Imagine the feeling a child has when a parent takes the time to understand how she is feeling. Just as important, imagine how the parent feels when he or she can understand why their child is behaving a certain way and can help alter the pattern of behavior. Taking a moment to shift from enforcing rules to having a conversation and learning how to better support a child’s needs can lead to increased communication and better behavior. This does not mean supporting a child’s need to eat ice cream at ten o’clock at night, but may decrease the drawn out process of going to bed by creating a reminder system to put on pajamas ten minutes prior.

Boss & Coworkers

Perspective taking can help you better understand what your boss is asking of you and to perform better in your job requirements. It will also lead to greater tolerance of your coworkers and appreciation for their work habits. It can foster collaborative and cohesive working environments.

Stressful Situations

The ability to consider the perspective of others in stressful situations can help to ease intense emotions.  When faced with stressful situations people have different styles of responding. Unfortunately our ability to tolerate differences in others also tends to diminish with stress.  It then becomes easy to react negatively to the differences in others, rather than the crisis at hand.

Consider a family of adult children, Bill, Susan and Robert, suddenly planning for the care of an aging parent.  Bill’s natural response is to begin making business decisions such as financial decisions and identifying care facilities. Susan’s natural response is to sit with the parent and discuss all the options available while providing care for his daily needs. Robert’s natural response is calm and nonreactive because he is already managing private turmoil in his own home and he knows the other two are taking care of things. Without communication and perspective taking, Bill can seem heartless in his business decisions, Susan can appear ineffective in planning future care and Robert can appear negligent in the family’s responsibility to care for one another.

In this example, each adult child responded to the stressful situation by stepping into their natural role of care. Without perspective taking, it is a perfect scenario for resentment to build towards one another. When each one is able to understand another’s perspective they are then able to appreciate their individual strengths and unique ways of responding. The family may still need to discuss options and differences of opinion but now there is opportunity for working together rather than against one another.

How to Begin

Begin practicing perspective taking skills today. You likely already engage in perspective taking in certain situations in your life. You can practice by thinking about a person in a specific situation and asking yourself some simple questions:

  • What are some thoughts or feelings the person may have had in that situation?
  • What are additional possibilities?
  • Is there information that is leading me to consider these possibilities?
  • How can I ask the person directly?

When attempting to consider another person’s perspective it is important to remain inquisitive and refrain from making assumptions. Make educated guesses and find a way to evaluate the information you are using to make these guesses. Always keep in mind that direct communication with the person is the most effective way to understand his or her perspective.

Image: K.Dinh Photography on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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