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Why Perspective Taking Is an Essential Skill for Success

The definition of perspective-taking is really pretty basic, it’s the ability to take on someone else’s point of view when thinking. A simple concept, and it’s something that most of us do all of the time, mostly without even thinking about it.

One study analyzed the way in which people gave directions to a landmark. Not surprisingly, the directions they gave depended on whether the person asking was perceived as being out of town or a local. Out of towners were given much more detailed directions because the person assumed that they were less familiar with local landmarks and how to navigate the city. Locals were assumed to know the general layout of the city and how to navigate within it.[1]

We are always collecting data about other people’s state of mind through their behaviors, verbal and non-verbal cues. If someone has tears in their eyes, we can assume they are upset. We understand that hyperventilation, fast talking and anxiety can mean that the person is panicked. Their tone of voice can convey anger, sympathy or happiness. These are all social cues that we instinctually process and use to formulate socially acceptable responses.

For example, if a friend expresses sadness because their football team lost, then a joke may be an appropriate way to snap them out of it. But if they are sad because a family member just died, showing them support is going to be a better response.

You may be reading this and saying to yourself that, perspective taking is just another term for empathy; but there are very distinct and important differences especially in a business setting.

Empathy and Perspective Taking — Two Distinct Phenomenons
Empathy is the ability to take on and relate to someone else’s feeling or emotions. Perspective taking removes all the emotional aspects and is strictly concerned with how the other person perceives a situation. This is a very important distinction in a professional setting.

Studies have shown that people who negotiate with empathy end up giving away more and getting less than people who negotiate through perspective taking.

Perspective taking, according to a study published in the April 2008 issue of Psychological Science, involves understanding and anticipating an opponent’s interests, thoughts, and likely behaviors, whereas empathy focuses mostly on sympathy and compassion for another.[2]

“Perspective takers are able to step outside the constraints of their own immediate, biased frames of reference… Empathy, however, leads individuals to violate norms of equity and equality and to provide preferential treatments.”

In general, perspective taking works better in business settings and empathy works better in a social setting.

How to Develop Perspectives
Perspective taking is to some degree, an innate human characteristics. Most of us can understand when someone is in a bad mood, angry or excited, and we can anticipate their behaviors based on those factors.

Although it’s fair to note that there is a subgroup of people who have social deficits that can make perspective taking more difficult, or even impossible (some personality disorders, autism etc.) But for the most part, perspective taking is an innate ability that can be sharpened and honed as a skill.

Try this experiment:

With your dominant hand snap your fingers for 5 times. Now with the other hand, trace the capital letter E on your forehead. This little trick is designed to measure how well you take other people’s perspectives into account.

If your E faced the left side of your body, it would be easy to read from someones else’s perspective. If it faced the right side of your body, it would be easy for you to read. Certainly not definitive, but a fun little exercise.

Now, for those of you whose “E” faced the right side of your body (full disclosure, I’m included). Here are some ways to develop your perspective taking skills:

Consciously put aside your feelings so that you can concentrate only on the other person’s perspective.
Do not approach the situation with a “mission” mindset. Always approach with curiosity. “What is it that makes them to act the way they are”?
Use open ended questions that can help you draw out the interests and motivation that the person may not be verbalizing.
Be clear about your own position and the weaknesses it has.
Remove any personal intentions you may have, so as not to project them on to the other person.
Using what you know about the person, their background, their mood, their intentions and expectations. Imagine how they are seeing the current situation.
Once you have an understanding of their perspective, try to anticipate what their reaction will be so that you can adjust your responses in order to move them towards the outcome you desire.
Validate their position (you don’t have to agree with it) by paraphrasing back to them what you think their position is.
Use the mirroring technique,[3] mimicking movements, postures and facial expressions, to put them at ease and create a connection.

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