Picture this. The moment has turned tense. You are on your last good nerve. You look at each other … bewildered, hurt and disappointed. How did the situation go sideways so fast? What planet is this person from anyway? Unfortunately, this is an oh-so-common occurrence. Welcome to the world of perspective-taking.
Whether an issue is public (of vaxxing and masks or of racial and gender inequality) or private (who pays the bills or does the household chores?) it’s all too easy to point fingers when your worldview is challenged. However, these misunderstandings can be averted by considering the situation from a different point of view. It requires you to put yourself in the other person’s position and imagine what you would feel, think or do if you were in that situation. What causes some people to seek consensus, understanding, and collaboration, while others become even more entrenched in the status quo? How might people, despite differences in experience, thought, and action, find common ground and build solutions that are mutually beneficial?
Seeing a situation from another person’s perspective opens up a path for more understanding and tolerance. When we mindfully practice perspective-taking, we become more skillful at accurately interpreting the behavior of those around us. However, notice the irony. Our brains are wired to satisfy our egocentric impulses. We are the center of our world making us the hero and while giving others a supporting role. We refer to our own experiences and perspectives as our base point. Taken to an extreme this focus can prompt a “my way or the highway” attitude.
Yet moving past the blinders of our own reality show allows us to see a fuller picture. When we engage in perspective taking, we move away from an egocentric starting point and consider the needs and feelings of everyone involved. With multiple perspectives, we have a richer grasp (albeit more complicated) of a common experience; this, in turn, builds trust which can lead to stronger relationships and deepen mutual understanding.
Mentally standing in someone else’s shoes requires reflection, which can then reroute an unthinking reaction. Repeatedly viewing issues or events through a different lens can build and strengthen the neural networks around the brain that enables us to pause and assess multiple options before taking action. Calm perspective-taking directs incoming information to the reflective, thinking prefrontal cortex part of the brain (which controls executive function) instead of to the reflexive and reactive amygdala part of the brain (which controls emotional behavior and is hyper alert to threats).
But practicing perspective-taking is not easy – the process is gradual and requires conscious effort. Why? Others often view us differently than we view ourself, and our shared circumstances don’t necessarily result in shared conclusions. How do we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and recognize their point of view, experience, and beliefs? Some helpful strategies for taking another’s perspective include:
- Imagining yourself in their shoes – what do they need or want from others?
- Using your own past experiences to understand their situation – can you show empathy for their actions?
- Applying general knowledge (e.g., hunches) about how they are likely to react in particular situations – can you repeat back what you hear them saying in words that make sense to both you and them?
- Aiming for understanding – can you respect different opinions? (that does not mean that you have to agree with them; it is simply acknowledging how they are thinking or feeling about a situation or what they want or need).
So expand your worldview. This may be as simple (or as hard) as going beyond your comfort level a little bit more. Actively listen when people speak rather than using the wait time as a rehearsal of what you want to say back to them. Shift your orientation from “me”’ to “we.” Imagine that they actually have something important to teach you. Perspective-taking is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Some of us find it easier to master than others, but it’s a technique that anyone can access at anytime, anywhere. However, we all have to overcome a common barrier — ourselves.
Homework for this week: Think of an interaction with a difficult person in your life. Imagine you are a cultural anthropologist studying the behavioral patterns of an alien culture. After observing your difficult person’s speech and actions, hypothesize (nonjudgmentally) why he or she acts that way.
Dr. B, aka Wayne Benenson, Ph.D., has had lots of career opportunities to be mindful: as an elementary and early childhood teacher, a college professor and a researcher on peer mediation. He currently offers mindfulness tutorials, short and sweet (20 minutes), via Zoom. For more information check out his Facebook page at or contact him here.