Our lives are teeming with small, seemingly insignificant, interpersonal interactions. These small interactions can have an especially strong impact in the workplace. Maybe one of your colleagues asks for help with something, or maybe your manager describes a workplace change that will be taking place in the future. In these types of situations, it is essential to be able to think about things from another person’s perspective. Being able to see things from someone else’s point of view helps contribute to job performance and creates a positive organizational climate.
Our team of PhDs have reviewed 100s of articles on perspective taking to bring you the following post that will describe how perspective taking works, what its benefits are, what can get in the way, and provide three exercises that will require you to step outside your own frame of mind. The exercises include:
- Improving perspective taking by watching a movie or TV show
- Using your imagination to consider a situation from a multitude of viewpoints
- Drawing from your real-world experience to think about an encounter differently
These exercises will help you practice thinking about things from another person’s point of view. When you’re able to do this, you will experience a host of personal and social benefits.
How perspective taking works
When people try to understand the mental states of others, it is referred to as theory of mind. The ability to do this depends on executive functioning, particularly shifting between mental sets. This is because when people look at things from another person’s perspective, they are shifting from their own state of mind to understand the other person’s mindset. Perspective taking involves the activation of an entire network of brain regions. When thinking about the mindset of another person, the brain shows activation in the dorsomedial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (responsible for inferring mental states and working memory and selective attention, respectively), as well as the tempoparietal junction (social cognition) and precuneus (memory, integration, mental imagery).
Additionally, when you take on someone else’s perspective, you start to see more of that person in yourself. This increases social bonds and reduces stereotypes. You also start to include the person whose perspective you’re taking in your own sense of self, and features of the other person become more descriptive of yourself as well. This increases social coordination and social bonds.
Try taking on someone else’s point of view to test yourself
Perspective taking can be a very difficult thing to do. We know our own thoughts and feelings so well that it’s often hard to set them aside to try to think about things the way another person would. Follow the steps below to test your perspective taking abilities.
Step 1. Think about a conflict you’re having. What is it about? Who is it with? How do you feel about it? What steps do you want to take? Take a few minutes to write down your answers to the previous questions. This can help you process your thoughts and emotions better. Before moving on to the next step, really try to understand what’s underlying the conflict you’re experiencing.
Step 2. Think about what’s bothering you from the perspective of the person(s) you’re having the conflict with. How do you think they see the conflict? How do you think they feel about it? What were their intentions? Take a few minutes to write about the conflict from the other person(s) perspective.
Step 3. Return to your own perspective. Answer the questions from Step 1 again. Did this help you to think about the conflict in a different way? Are your answers to the questions the same as before, or have they changed?
If you find this exercise difficult, keep reading to learn about tips to help improve your ability to think about things from other people’s points of view.
What is perspective taking?
Actively considering other people’s points of view happens when you try your best to suspend judgement and understand that person’s thoughts, motives, and emotions; as well as why they think and feel the way they do.
In this sense, perspective taking is an intentional process rather than something that is automatic. This means that you have to make a pointed effort to do it. It’s also an active process that requires intentional distancing from your own perspective. In order to do it properly, you have to have the cognitive capacity, emotional resources, and proper behavioral strategies. Generally speaking, it’s easier to take on someone else’s perspective when you experience positive emotion toward them, such as empathy and compassion. It is also related to emotional intelligence.
How is taking on someone else’s point of view beneficial?
Being able to take other people’s perspectives leads to higher quality and more significant social interactions. It makes it easier to clearly communicate with others, and increases disclosure. People who are better at perspective taking even tend to have bigger social networks.
In the workplace, seeing things from another person’s point of view can help you make unbiased evaluations of others, which is especially important for things like performance reviews. The ability to better understand a client, supervisor’s, or colleague’s needs, can also make work more meaningful, increasing internal motivation and job satisfaction.
Barriers to perspective taking
Despite its benefits, taking on someone else’s perspective can be a difficult task, and there are three primary barriers.
- Activating your ability to engage in perspective taking: This requires actively thinking about another person’s mental state. Although this is the first step in the perspective taking process, many people don’t even consider thinking about things from another person’s perspective. Next time you’re interacting with another person and having trouble seeing their point of view, take a moment and set aside some time to engage in perspective taking.
- Adjusting from an egocentric default: The most essential aspect of seeing things from someone else’s point of view is being able to look beyond your own perspective. This can be extremely difficult, because your perspective is immediate, automatic, and easy. In contrast, reasoning about another person’s mental state is slow, deliberate, and difficult.
- Accessing accurate information about others: Often times, in order to accurately look at another person’s perspective, we will need additional information about the person – some of which we can infer based on our interactions with the person. But be careful, we often get a lot of false impressions of others, so it’s important to carefully consider the information you’re using to assess the other person’s point of view.
Tips for improving your ability to see another person’s point of view
Tip 1: Watch a movie or TV show
A great way to practice perspective taking is by engaging with movies or TV shows. In fact, research shows that reading fiction is beneficial for developing empathy and perspective taking. Next time you want to try seeing something from another person’s point of view, pick a movie or TV show and select one of the character’s perspectives to take. You can start with a character that you feel is similar to yourself. As you get more experience imagining things from other perspectives, you can try taking the perspective of characters that are very different from you.
When you’re watching the movie or TV show, pause it one third of the way through, half of the way through, and ¾ of the way through. Each time you pause it, ask yourself:
- What is [the character] thinking right now, and why?
- Why is [the character] behaving the way he or she is behaving?
- What emotions is [the character] experiencing right now, and why?
Once you’ve finished the movie or show, ask yourself the following questions that assess how well you were able to identify with the character:
- Were you able to understand the events in the movie/show in a manner similar to that in which the character understood them?
- Do you think you have a good understanding of the character?
- Did you tend to understand the reasons the character did what he or she did?
- Did you feel like you could really get inside the character’s head?
- Could you feel the emotions the character portrayed?
- At key moments in the story, did you feel like you knew exactly what the character was going through?
It’s great to start practicing perspective taking with fictional characters, because, as an audience, we’re meant to relate to and sympathize with some of the characters. The narrative is played out to make this occur. That makes it easier to imagine where characters might be coming from, at least in comparison to coworkers we might not know very well.
Starting with fictional characters is also good because you’re not as emotionally invested in the outcomes for those characters as you are for the outcomes of social interactions in your own life. Once you get the hang of taking on the perspectives of fictional characters and trying to understand their mental states, you can try using the same tactic in situations you encounter in your day-to-day interactions.
Tip 2: Use your (social) imagination
Another good way to think about things from different perspectives is by imagining hypothetical scenarios, such as with the role-taking task.
- Look at the above picture. Get a piece of paper and a pen. Craft and write down a dramatic story that describes what’s going on in the image. What led up to the event in the picture? What’s happening in the moment? What was the outcome of the situation?
- Now look at the picture again and pretend that you are the man holding the gun. Imagine that you’re in the situation you outlined. Take a new sheet of paper and rewrite the story from the perspective of the man with the gun. What is he thinking or feeling? Spend approximately three minutes doing this.
- When you’re done, take a third piece of paper and rewrite the story pretending that you’re the man with the tie. What was he thinking or feeling? Again, take approximately three minutes to retell the story.
- Take another three minutes and repeat step 3 for the man with his back to the camera.
When you’re done, read over the stories you wrote down. Were you able to refocus your initial story from the perspectives of each character? Were you able to do this while maintaining continuity between all of the stories? How easy was it for you to determine their mental states? Your ability to describe the characters differently from each perspective and account for their unique inner narratives is a good way to gauge how well you were able to shift perspectives between the three men in the picture.
If you had difficulty with this exercise, you can always practice doing this with different images you find online, or even as you’re going about your day.
Tip 3: Practice perspective taking in your own life
So far we’ve provided tips for how you can practice perspective taking from a distance, but the best way to get better at perspective taking is to do it in the context of your own life and experiences.
In order to do this, take a few minutes to think about either the most recent conflict you had with someone, or a conflict you’re currently having. Now you’re going to try to set aside your own point of view and understand how the other person might have experienced the conflict.
To do this, you’re going to answer a series of questions. First, get a piece of paper and a pen, or you can use a word processor if you’re more comfortable typing.
- Take a few minutes to write about the conflict from the other person’s point of view.
- Answer the following questions:
- What happened between yourself and this person?
- What did you do to incite this conflict?
- What might this person have been thinking about your actions?
- How do you think this conflict affected this person’s emotions?
- From his or her perspective, what could you have done differently during this conflict?
By thinking about a personal experience you had with another person from his or her point of view, you’re not only able to set aside your own perspective, but you might also be able to develop insight into your own behavior, or how you might be perceived by others. This is something you can do on a regular basis in your life. Whenever you experience conflict with someone, it is beneficial to take a step back and look at things from the other person’s point of view. Doing so can help lessen feelings of conflict and negativity.
Recap of how to take on another person’s point of view
Perspective taking is an essential part of social interaction, and it can have strong implications in the workplace. It’s responsible for social harmony and reducing conflict, as well as increasing empathy and understanding. Whenever you want to practice your perspective taking skills, consider the three tips outlined in this post:
- Watch a movie or TV show and keep an eye out for a specific character. Make sure you stop the movie or show at different points to take stock of what the character is thinking or feeling, and why that’s the case.
- Use your imagination to play around with different perspectives to see how people in different social roles might see certain situations.
- Whenever you experience a conflict, sit down and think about what’s occurring from the other person’s point of view. This can help lessen the conflict and increase your understanding of what went wrong.