Perspective Taking: Multiple Paths to Understanding

graph showing how perspective taking loops through doing and reflection while also impacting your interpersonal understanding and how the other parties feelDr. Barbara Roberts

In response to feedback from our fall 2018 WorkLife conference, “Building Community in a Culture of Change”, our series of workshops on trust continued in March, both in person and by Zoom. In her conference keynote and workshop session, Dr. Michele Williams explored “perspective taking” - listening until we understand another’s perspective. Her recommendations did not stop at just listening, but also acting on what we learn from listening, “perspective doing”. Through a cycle of taking the other’s perspective, “doing” or responding based on that perspective, and reflecting on the whole process, we come to a less conflictual and more constructive path forward. The March 21 follow-up workshop, “Perspective Taking: Multiple Paths to Understanding” focused on various paths through which we can understand this idea.

Often, we listen with the underlying intent of defending our own position, building our reaction, or refuting the other person’s point. Instead, Williams and others emphasize the importance of listening to learn, to understand, to really see the other person’s perspective before moving on. Only then do we know the landscape of the conversation fully enough to successfully navigate the mountains and valleys to a better place, a more constructive outcome. 

The March 21 workshop illustrated parallels between Williams’ description of perspective taking/doing, and other ways that various authors talk about the importance of another person’s perspective. Theories and strategies from Stephen Covey, Roger Fisher and William Ury, Eckhart Tolle, Karen Armstrong, the Dali Lama, St. Francis of Assisi and Daniel Goleman were explored. All the frameworks described by these and other authors speak to the importance of putting our understanding of the other person first, and understanding deeply enough that that person feels understood, before moving ahead. Common themes among all these authors include the importance of pausing to listen, clarify understanding, and checking assumptions - perhaps seeking third party information if needed to clarify a disagreement or lack of information. The importance of framing a response, not a reaction, based in deeper understanding is also supported.

Having reviewed the similarities between these authors and Williams’ work, we practiced “perspective taking” and “perspective doing”, using a framework most comfortable for an individual participant. Participants broke into groups of three - a speaker, a listener and an observer. In a non-judgmental setting, speakers shared an idea they felt strongly about while listeners worked to reflect that perspective until the speaker felt understood. Observers noted what kinds of behavior, action, or comments helped or hindered understanding. Roles rotated until everyone had an opportunity to speak, listen, and observe. Actions noted as helpful to understanding included open, attentive body language (leaning in, making eye contact, occasionally nodding with interest), asking for clarification, encouragement to “tell me more”, and not interrupting.  Actions that hindered understanding were noted as nodding to rush the speaker along, interrupting, and impatience. Participants noted their own reactions to material shared, and the need to intentionally resist impulsive reactions or interjections of their own thoughts and perspectives until understanding was achieved.

Feedback from the session was positive, with some participants wishing for more time to practice, or differently structured topics for the exercise. Overall however, we expanded on the work presented by Dr. Williams in October by exploring “multiple paths to understanding” - a variety of ways one might understand another’s perspective. After all, even Elvis sang the virtues of seeking to understand: “Walk a mile in my shoes; Before you abuse, criticize and accuse; Walk a mile in my shoes!” (Joe Sharp, sung by Elvis Presley). 

Please join us for our final follow-up session on building trust among colleagues. On April 18 from 11:30 am - 1:00 pm, Todd Bradley and Carrie Galdes will present “Developing Cohesiveness: Building a Culture of Trust” in Chittenden Hall, Room 110.  Hope to see you there!