Perspective Taking Revisited: Multiple Paths to Understanding

woman talking on her phoneSummary of WLO Webinar April 7, 2020
By Dr. Barbara Roberts

We all struggle with new ways of communicating, learning and working together in this virtual online world. The WorkLife Office tackled some of the challenges in a webinar on April 7, 2020 titled “Perspective Taking, Revisited: Multiple Paths to Understanding”.  We explored various ways to appreciate another person’s perspective to build trust, compassion, and camaraderie. Built from Dr. Michele Williams’ suggestions to actually practice taking different perspectives before assuming anything about one another, we viewed perspective taking through the work of different authors, helping participants to find their favorite to take into their next conversation.

In her conference keynote and workshop session in October, 2018, 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 insight, and reflecting on the whole process, we create less conflict and find a more constructive path forward. Attending to another’s perspective helps to build trust, and enhances our compassion for one another through deeper understanding. The webinar focused on various lenses through which we can understand and relate to this idea.

When we consider the parallels between Williams’ description of perspective taking/doing, and other lenses through which various authors talk about the importance of another person’s perspective, the similarities and overlap are impressive. Theories and strategies from Stephen Covey, Roger Fisher and William Ury, Eckhart Tolle, Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, St. Francis of Assisi, Don Miguel Ruiz, Daniel Goleman, and others share common ideas of seeking first to understand, avoiding assumptions, and listening deeply. 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. All these authors speak to the importance of 

  • pausing to listen
  • clarify understanding, and 
  • checking assumptions

and perhaps seeking third party information if needed to clarify a disagreement or lack of information. It’s important to frame a response, not just a reaction, based in deeper understanding. 

man talking on the phoneOften, we listen with an instinctive intent to defend our own position, build our reaction, or refute 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. In these times of particularly challenging communication and easy misunderstanding, these principles are especially important. After all, even Elvis sang the virtues of seeking first 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).

This webinar from April 7, 2020 was recorded, and is available to watch on replay.

Read the related article from April 3, 2019